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 weekend, Noble Indy held off Lone Sailor in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby to earn 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby, and Runaway Ghost romped in the Sunland Derby to earn 50 points to the May 5 classic. Lone Sailor is also firmly on the road to Churchill Downs with 40 points accrued in his runner-up effort at Fair Grounds.
This Saturday, two preps offering 170 qualifying points each (on a 100-40-20-10 scale to the top four horses) are scheduled: the United Arab Emirates Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, and the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
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
Owner-trainer Mick Ruis nominated him to the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes just as another option for his final Derby prep in the coming weeks. But one would think he will stay home and run at his favorite track and avoid all that travel. He got exactly what he needed in the San Felipe Stakes, which he won via McKinzie’s disqualification, and that takes the pressure off for the April 7 Santa Anita Derby. He returned to the worktab with a sharp half-mile drill in :47 flat, fastest of 74 works at the distance, with private clocker Andy Harrington getting him galloping out five furlongs in :59 4/5. Both he and McKinzie came out of the San Felipe razor sharp with bullet works, so we will have to see if another knock-down, drag-out fight is in store. Taking another look at his pedigree, he has a great deal going for him, as his first three dams were all bred by Claiborne Farm, and his third dam is by Claiborne- owned and bred Forty Niner. He has class all through his pedigree. Breeders will love that he is a complete outcross through his first five generations. He certainly is not a rock-solid No. 1 ranked horse, with McKinzie so close behind, but you had to love the way he made the transition from two to three, especially returning from a minor setback early in the year that cost him a start in the San Vicente Stakes, and he always runs a big race and has the ability to crush his opponents or outfight them in a slugfest. As they say, he has all the tools and checks off all the boxes. There is nothing not to like about him.
He worked a half in company in :47 4/5, breaking off two lengths behind his workmate. He was being nudged along and was allowed to come home pretty much on his own, finishing a neck in front of his workmate. It was good to see him bounce out of that battle with Bolt d’Oro so sharp, as it was for his opponent. He followed up that work with a five-furlong drill in a bullet :59 2/5, fastest of 82 works at the distance, this time taking back some eight lengths early and having to use his turn of foot. Harrington got his last eighth in a swift :11 2/5. Remember, he got a later start in his career than Bolt d’Oro and still has room for improvement. You don’t often see a horse involved in two disqualifications in his first four starts. But there are no worries about him being the ultimate professional on Derby Day. The prospect of a rematch between him and Bolt d’Oro makes the Santa Anita Derby all the more intriguing. It’s a race you want to win, but not at the expense of the Kentucky Derby, so I wouldn’t think either camp wants to see another gut-wrencher. With the San Felipe having served its purpose for both him and Bolt d’Oro, you just want to see a good solid effort, with both colts using the race as a springboard for the big one. But with both colts so sharp, so fast, and so competitive, it will be difficult to avoid another slugfest. His female family is not as strong as Bolt d’Oro’s, but he still should not have a problem getting the mile and a quarter.
3. Catholic Boy
With the Florida Derby this weekend, I am taking a big leap of faith by moving him up past Good Magic for now based mainly on his recent half-mile work in :48 3/5 at Gulfstream. I loved the way he dragged his rider up to his workmate on the turn and the pure poetry of his stride coming down the stretch, galloping out an additional eighth in a strong :13 1/5. Now it is all up to him. He has to prove himself worthy of such a high ranking, and can do so by either winning or running a strong second. If he is closing at the end and puts in a fast final three-eighths, but fails to catch Audible or Promises Fulfilled or any horse who runs lights out on that speed-favoring track, that will be sufficient to put him on course to peak on Derby Day and keep his Top 5 ranking. Even a close third will suffice if he shows enough and is right there. But he currently has only 14 points, and a third would not ensure him a spot in the field. When you have only two preps and one of them is only a 10-point race, you better be on your game in that final prep and finish first or second or it’s nail-biting time.
4. Good Magic
I didn’t mind lowering him one spot this week to leave the opening for Catholic Boy, because he can very easily jump back into any one of the top three spots with a big effort in the Blue Grass Stakes. But doesn’t it feel like he hasn’t run in ages? We will just have to wait until the Blue Grass to see how much he will move forward off of his third-place effort in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. If he should run a big enough race to show that he is starting to round into peak form, then you can expect him to reach that peak on Derby Day, and that is what all trainers should be striving for. Chad Brown has left a lot of room to play with and a lot left in the tank, but he needs to rebound and show that championship form, and prove to everyone that the Holy Bull was not an indicator of his transition from two to three, but a simple case of not being as fit and sharp as everyone thought he was. Horses just don’t do what he did in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile unless they have that rare special quality, and as mentioned earlier, he just may be the type of horse who needs to race himself into shape. Don’t be shocked to see him back at No. 1 after the Blue Grass.
5. Magnum Moon
Even though he is a May 9 foal, Todd Pletcher’s father, J. J., who broke the colt and gave him his early training, sent him to his son early and told him, “Take care of him, he’s one of the best horses we’ve ever broken.” The elder Pletcher said he was such a good mover and did everything like it was nothing. When the colt won an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs, he said “he ran chills down my back, he did it so easily.” J. J., who does not throw comments like these around haphazardly, also pointed out that although he was a little behind the others, it was encouraging that he earned the same speed figure as Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie in his Rebel Stakes win. Speaking of speed figures, Magnum Moon’s Thoro-Graph number in his career debut was fast enough to win many Kentucky Derbys, and certainly fast enough to win this year’s Derby, so that gives you an idea just how brilliant this colt was right off the bat. Yes, he does have to make history by becoming the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having started at two, but you know one of these years, with so many late-developing talented horses attempting it, someone is going to put an end to that. His debut was delayed due to puffy ankles, which forced them to stop on him for a while, but he has certainly made up for lost time with three terrific performances.
Speaking of brilliant, late-developing horses, the more I see of this colt the more amazed I am what a perfect racing machine he is. In his work two back, a half in :46 2/5, you could see how much push he gets from those massive hindquarters and how he lowers his shoulder and reaches out with tremendous extension. He is so long he seemed to dwarf his workmate Dr. Dorr when he ranged up alongside him. He came back with a five-furlong work in :59 3/5, cruising by his workmate, who was in a full-out drive down the stretch, and once again galloping out strong. If there is a “freak” in this crop, you would have to believe it is him, based on everything we have seen so far, both in the morning and the afternoon. As much as racing fans would love to see a rematch between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie in the Santa Anita Derby, a showdown between Justify and Magnum Moon in the April 14 Arkansas Derby might be even more intriguing. One of the reasons Justify is ranked below Magnum Moon is that he has had one less start, and when you’re talking about three lifetime starts compared to four going into the Kentucky Derby, that could definitely make a difference. He also did not start at two, and is really bucking history and all logic. But from what we have seen so far, who knows what he is capable of.
Like Good Magic, he has not raced in quite a while, and it is easy to forget just how sensational he was in the Holy Bull Stakes. His backers had to be glad to see Enticed rebound off the drubbing he took from Audible and win the Gotham Stakes. If he can come close to duplicating his Holy Bull performance stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in Saturday’s Florida Derby then perhaps it is time to start paying less attention to his pedigree. Right now, that question mark is all that is separating him from the No. 7 spot and a much higher ranking. As I have mentioned, his Brisnet late-closing figures are extremely impressive, especially after stalking a fast pace. So by having a very high cruising speed and the ability to close fast, he poses quite a threat, both for horses who run with him early and those who try to catch him late. Going from 1 1/16 miles with a shortened stretch to 1 1/8 miles and a longer stretch, he should answer a lot of questions in the Florida Derby, and could catapult way up the list with another stellar performance. But with his pedigree, he is going to have to give some indication that 1 ¼ miles is within his reach.
He breezed a solid half in :48 2/5 at Tampa Bay Downs, second fastest of 36 works at the distance. The more I look at his Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory the more impressed I am, considering it was his first start of year and he was up against some talented horses who were proven stakes winners over the track. He now just needs a good solid maintenance race to help him move forward and peak on Derby Day. Another who will have only two preps before the Kentucky Derby, he has already had the kind of race you want to see, so no need to look for anything spectacular in his next start. But he does appear to be a very competitive colt, so he will get something out of it for sure. His pedigree is solid enough, but does not shout out a mile and a quarter, especially with the Boston Harbor – Capote connection in his tail-female family. Still, he does trace to Royal Serenade, who was quite an enigma, being strictly a six-furlong horse in England at two, three, and four and was champion sprinter at three and four. But he came to the U.S. at age five and managed to win the mile-and-a-quarter Hollywood Gold Cup with Johnny Longden up.
The April 7 Wood Memorial could be a perfect spot for him. I have always maintained that with his grinding style, and running in spots, as he did in the Rebel Stakes, he might be better served pressing or setting the pace, as those horses usually get tough on the lead, and we saw how he dug in and wouldn’t let a strong closer like Combatant get by him when holding second. I believe he just needs to get involved early, whether on or just off the pace, and keep those competitive juices flowing. I just don’t think you want to put him in a position where he has to run down horses in the stretch. He did do just that in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, but he wasn’t doing much from the quarter pole to the eighth pole and I believe the two inexperienced horses up front, both coming off maiden wins, just got a bit tired in the closing stages and started to come back to him. We have seen him change leads and look professional in the morning, but he did not change leads again in the Rebel Stakes. Perhaps that can be attributed to being out of sync having to alter course after getting shut off on the rail. In his most recent half-mile work in :48, he again was put on the lead and did change leads, and again was dogged in the stretch, but he was throwing his head around at the start, and the rider had to really get into him to get his mind on business. He then threw his head up in the air again after turning for home. One of these days you would hope he will learn to do everything the right way from start to finish, and then we’ll see the real Solomini. If he does go in the Wood Memorial over a track that might be more to his liking, I see him as a major threat who can run the kind of race he will need to set him up for the Derby. That is, of course, if he behaves. He does have the stamina to set or press the pace and keep going, defying anyone to pass him.
Back in Florida following his Gotham Stakes victory, he returned to the work tab, breezing a half in :49 3/5 at Palm Meadows. You certainly can't fault his pedigree and he does have the look of a class horse. He doesn't move as quite as smoothly as some of the others and is not as quick or light on his feet, but he has that one pace and can sustain it. And that will always make him dangerous. It must be noted again what a key race the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes has been. Five horses from that race – Promises Fulfilled (Fountain of Youth Stakes), Quip (Tampa Bay Derby), Bravazo (Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford), Reride (Mine That Bird Stakes), and himself (Gotham Stakes) – have won stakes this year, four of them graded. Furthermore, two others – Lone Sailor (Louisiana Derby) and Gotta Go (Swale Stakes) – finished second. He is not going to “wow” you with his brilliance, but he will test you and should get stronger as the distances stretch out. The class is there; he just needs to muster up more speed in order to compete with the faster horses.
11. My Boy Jack
The good news is that he showed in the Louisiana Derby he is just as good on a fast track as he is in the slop and doesn’t need a ground-saving trip. Also, his turn of foot was as explosive as we’ve seen all year and he lost a ton of ground, rallying way out in the middle of the track, at least eight-wide. The bad news is I still think should have won, but couldn’t quite sustain his move. I am willing to give him a pass on that considering how much ground he lost at the head of the stretch and the fact that he finished nearly eight lengths ahead of the fourth horse. You can’t blame Kent Desormeaux for going so wide, as he was on a runaway train and there was no way he could take a chance trying to get through the pack. All he could do was steer him to the far outside and give him a clear run. And although he came up short, it was still a prep that should now set him up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby. No, he couldn’t catch Noble Indy or Lone Sailor, but of the three he looks to be more of a Derby horse, with more experience than the winner, the rapid-fire acceleration you want to see, and the ability of rally on the outside or inside. I also feel Keith Desormeaux is one of the most astute trainers in the country and can have this colt sitting on a huge performance in the Derby if, of course, he gets the right kind of pace and right kind of trip. You never know with deep closers, but I can definitely see this colt coming on strong and at least making his presence felt on the first Saturday in May.
12. Runaway Ghost
So, you’re probably asking, why is this colt on the list and not Noble Indy? I was torn which one to put here, and decided on him because of several factors. He had to overcome more, he dominated his opponents more, and he has the altitude angle that I can’t dismiss. We have seen what megabombs Canonero and Mine That Bird did at Churchill Downs having spent a long period of time at high-altitude racetracks, and we saw what Sunland-based Conquest Mo Money did in last year’s Arkansas Derby against the reining 2-year-old champ Classic Empire when finishing a very good second at odds of 17.60-1. The key with him I believe is to stay at Sunland Park for as long as possible to utilize the dramatic change in altitude before it wears off. I admit this angle is not etched in stone, but it is an angle that has worked several times before and makes sense physiologically.
Many will be down on him because of his 86 Beyer Speed Figure, but that means little to me, especially considering that in Mine That Bird’s two races at Sunland Park, he earned Beyers of 81 and 80. In furthering the comparison, both horses won stakes as 2-year-olds on a synthetic surface and bombed in their final start at two. Runaway Ghost really proved himself to be top-class in the Sunland Derby and what an astute strategy it was to take back and not charge for the lead from the 11-post. This is a horse who has been on the lead or battling for the lead in every start, yet was adaptable enough to take back to eighth rather than be used early trying for the lead. His connections also sacrificed him having to go five to six-wide most of the way in order to teach him to be a Derby horse. And he delivered big time, blowing by the leaders on the far turn. I also like the fact that he was only 2 ½ lengths off a :45 4/5 half and still came home in a respectable :12 4/5, and the second horse, Dream Baby Dream, rallying from 11th, finished six lengths ahead of the third horse. Getting back to Noble Indy, WinStar Farm already has three horses in the Top 12, and with so little separating the two horses, I gave the nod to the Cinderella horse with the better human interest story, as well as the altitude angle and the wide trip. No one is saying this colt is going to win the Kentucky Derby, but he has done enough to earn a place in the Top 12 for now. With all the big prep races coming up, he probably won’t be here for long, but this is his week to shine.
Knocking At the Door
Yes, I am aware that Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby, and he most likely will wind up in the Top 12 once everything gets sorted out, but I’m not sure just how strong a race the Louisiana Derby was, and Noble Indy will have only four career starts and a six-week layoff going into the Kentucky Derby. I thought My Boy Jack looked more like a potential Derby winner with all he had to overcome, while Noble Indy had a perfect trip, stalking a huge longshot and inheriting an easy lead, which he promptly gave up. And I have seen too many Todd Pletcher horses look like they are about to get buried turning for home, only to get a second wind and come on again. His horses are always difficult to get by, and he was helped in this case when the horse who had him measured and got in front of him, Lone Sailor, couldn’t keep a straight course in the stretch, drifting out and then drifting back in. I also had to take into consideration Noble Indy’s final three-eighths in :39 1/5 with a perfect trip. There is no doubt Noble Indy is a talented horse with a bright future, but I thought My Boy Jack and Runaway Ghost had more to overcome. As I said, he likely will wind up in the Top 12 as the Derby gets closer.
Lone Sailor is no slouch, having proven himself at two with a head defeat in the Street Sense Stakes and a third-place finish in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. His only bad effort was in the Lecomte Stakes when blinkers were added, but they are off for good. His third dam is a full sister to the sensational filly Althea and multiple graded stakes winner Aquilegia and a half-sister to Peter Pan and Withers winner Twining and the top-class grass horse Native Courier. Among the plethora of inbreeding in his pedigree is the Rasmussen Factor (RF) inbreeding to the great Phipps Stable producer Broadway through her daughter Con Game (dam of Seeking the Gold) and her brilliant son Reviewer (sire of Ruffian). He is also inbred an amazing four times to Secretariat, all through his daughters. He has the foundation with eight starts under him and showed on Saturday he is improving at the right time. If he can take one more step forward and race a bit more professionally in the stretch, he could provide quite a legacy for his late owner Tom Benson. Pletcher ruined that in the Louisiana Derby, so perhaps the Derby gods have better things in store for his family and countless admirers.
This time of year, with all the contenders having their final preps, it is not easy for horses to remain on the list, especially those at the bottom, and I hated taking Instilled Regard and Flameaway off, but you always have to make room for others who ran and performed well that weekend, and they both will get their chance to get back in the Top 12 when they have their final preps. Instilled Regard, who had worked very slowly in his last two drills, turned in an impressive seven-furlong move in 1:25 4/5 in preparation for the Santa Anita Derby. Working in company, he dropped some 20 lengths behind his workmate and was really motoring throughout, collaring his workmate a jump past the wire and then pulling away as he galloped out with good energy. Unfortunately, I watched this work after I took him off the Top 12. He has been on there for many weeks and could return next week in anticipation of the Santa Anita Derby. He has run eyeball-to-eyeball with McKinzie before, and if he returns to his California form and his Lecomte Stakes-winning form, he could give Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie all they can handle. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said Joel Rosario will ride in the Santa Anita Derby. The way Hollendorfer worked him, watch out for him in the final furlong.
This was the first weekend in which horses were running in their final Derby prep, and six weeks is a long time to wait to try to go into the Kentucky Derby dead-fit and sharp and in peak form. We do know that the Florida Derby, with five weeks in between, has been very successful, and some horses have gone the six weeks – Derby winners Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom, for example. And 2015 runner-up Firing Line ran huge coming off the Sunland Derby. So it can be done. It just has not been successful in the long run. No Louisiana Derby winner has won the Kentucky Derby since the race was moved up on the calendar. The last horse to win both races was Grindstone in 1996, when the race was run earlier and he was able to come back and run in the Arkansas Derby.
Of the others, Dream Baby Dream took a big step forward, proving himself to be a consistent closer who can always pick up a piece of it, much like Lookin At Lee last year. As mentioned, he did finish six lengths ahead of third-place finisher Peace in the Sunland Derby. New York Central and All Out Blitz couldn’t handle the fast pace and tired badly. Hollywood Star once again proved to be a big disappointment and was never in the race.
There were also several disappointments in the Louisiana Derby, most notably the first two finishers of the Risen Star Stakes, Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair, neither of whom ever threatened. The up and down Louisiana-bred Givemeaminit, who was good enough to be beaten a neck in the Hopeful Stakes and finish fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and bad enough to do little in the Breeders’ Futurity or the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and lost the Louisiana Futurity at 9-10 odds, made a threatening move on the turn and hung around to finish fourth, beaten 8 ½ lengths.
Saturday’s Florida Derby should be a terrific race with Audible, Promises Fulfilled, Strike Power, and Catholic Boy heading the field. But there are others who are capable of upsetting the field or finishing in the money at a big price. One who I have been high on, Storm Runner, who gets another chance after a badly misjudged ride in the Fountain of Youth, indicated his sharpness with a bullet :59 flat breeze at Gulfstream, fastest of 42 works at the distance. Also working well for the Florida Derby was Mississippi, runner-up to Storm Runner in an allowance race, who finished strong and galloped out strong in his half-mile drill in :49 2/5 for Mark Casse.
Trainer Dale Romans said that he intends to gun Promises Fulfilled and expects him to wire the field once again. But this time he will have Audible, as well as a more experienced Strike Power breathing down his neck and not ignoring him as they did in the Fountain of Youth. We’ll find out what he is made of and whether he can be a serious pacesetter in the Kentucky Derby.
All eyes will be on Godolphin’s runaway UAE Two Thousand Guineas winner Gold Town in Saturday’s UAE Derby, along with the Aiden O’Brien-trained Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn, winner of his only start this year, and the U.S. invader Reride, who is coming off an impressive victory over Runaway Ghost in the Mine That Bird Derby.
It was good to see Free Drop Billy, who was highly ranked earlier in the year, back on the worktab following his disappointing third in the Gotham Stakes. He still has that big effort in the Breeders’ Futurity to fall back on, but he needs to return to that form. He breezed an easy half-mile in :49 4/5 at Gulfstream Park.
Bob Baffert said he still hasn’t decided where to run Restoring Hope after the colt got shut out of the Sunland Derby and then worked a sharp six furlongs in 1:12 1/5. Baffert also worked the speedy San Vicente Stakes runner-up Nero five furlongs in 1:00 1/5.
Todd Pletcher is sitting in a great position with Audible, Magnum Moon, and Noble Indy, but he has others waiting in the wing. Three of them worked this week, with former Top 12 horse Marconi, third in the Withers Stakes and fifth in the Fountain of Youth, breezing five furlongs in 1:02 1/5 and recent allowance winner Biblical breezing his five panels in 1:03 2/5. I’m looking for a big rebound effort from Vino Rosso following his fourth-place finish in the Tampa Bay Derby, in which he did not respond well to the addition of blinkers. He returned to the worktab with a half-mile breeze in :49 flat. One would expect at least one of these three to show up in the Wood Memorial, with the Blue Grass Stakes an option for one or two of them.
The comeback kids, Mask and Greyvitos, are stepping up their training, although neither looks ready to make the Derby. But there is always the Preakness. Mask worked five furlongs in 1:00 2/5 and followed that up with a half-mile breeze in :49 4/5, while Greyvitos worked six furlongs in 1:14 2/5 and then seven panels in 1:27 1/5, both at Del Mar.
Because of the Derby points system in regard to the lone European challenger, trainer Jeremy Noseda has decided not to risk a trip to America for the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes with Gronkowski, who is tied with Mendelssohn in points. With Mendelssohn trying to earn his way in Saturday’s UAE Derby, which is part of the main Derby points system, awarding 100 points to the winner, it was decided to keep Gronkowski in Europe to compete in Friday’s one-mile Burradon Stakes at Newcastle, the final race in the European Road to the Kentucky Derby Challenge Series. Gronkowski had earned 20 points by winning the Road to the Kentucky Derby Condition Stakes at Kempton on March 1. So, now, if Gronkowski does wind up coming to the Derby, it will mark his first start on dirt, with the European Derby prep races all run on a synthetic surface. And it will mean the son of Lonhro will not have raced farther than a mile in his career. Gronkowski drew post 8 in the Burradon and will face 12 opponents.