Making the Grade, which will run through the 2018 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
If the abundance of horses with speed, specifically tactical speed, leads to a torrid early pace in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, the first jewel of the Triple Crown could set up for a 3-year-old who prefers to race off the pace. Although he is not a deep closer, Vino Rosso looks equipped to capitalize on such a pace scenario.
Ability: A $410,000 out of the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale, Vino Rosso got off to a great start on the racetrack with convincing victories in his first two starts. He won a seven-eighths of a mile sprint at Aqueduct in his November debut and followed with an allowance win at Tampa Bay Downs in December when stretching out to a mile and 40 yards. The 2 ¾-length debut win earned a 96 Equibase Speed Figure and his 2 ½-length win at Tampa earned an 83.
Vino Rosso galloped out powerfully after the finish line in the Sam F. Davis and the 104 Equibase Speed Figure also provided reason for optimism, but rather than take another step forward in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby, Vino Rosso finished fourth by six lengths in a dull, head-scratching performance.
The 88 Equibase Speed Figure reinforced the notion that Vino Rosso turned in a dud and he needed a major bounce-back effort in his next start to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher pointed him to the Grade 2, $1 million Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets and Vino Rosso took care of the rest, charging from nine lengths off the pace to take command in the stretch on his way to a three-length runaway.
Jockey John Velazquez was able to rate Vino Rosso a bit farther back than usual and the tactics worked perfectly. Vino Rosso earned a new career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure and after the race, Velazquez committed to ride Vino Rosso in the Derby, a significant decision considering he rode Audible to victory in the Xpressbet Florida Derby and Noble Indy to a win in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.
Timeform’s 121 speed figure for Vino Rosso’s Wood Memorial win was strong enough to put him on par with Audible’s Florida Derby (122), Good Magic’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (122), and Mendelssohn’s UAE Derby score (120), but behind, as all of the 3-year-olds are, Justify’s 132 for the Santa Anita Derby. His Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form was a career-best 98, which indicates he needs to make up 8-9 points on Mendelssohn and Justify, respectively, but is right there with the rest of the field. Brisnet also gave Vino Rosso a career-top 102 speed figure, 12 points behind the 114 Justify received for his Santa Anita Derby win — runner-up Bolt d’Oro got a 110 — and five points off the 107 Audible earned for the Florida Derby.
I really liked Vino Rosso’s Wood Memorial. I do think he’ll need to take another step forward in the Kentucky Derby to win or have Justify take a step back, which it seems the rest of the field needs, too.
Running style: Vino Rosso has shown the ability to stalk the pace or race from a bit farther back as he did in the Wood Memorial, when he was sixth then fifth, nine lengths off a solid pace. That might have been the most exciting part of his win, watching him accelerate at a target and really take it to him with a powerful closing rally. Vino Rosso did look a bit eager on the backstretch though as I never thought he fully relaxed, but if he can gain decent position under Velazquez early in the Derby and settle behind horses he should have plenty left for the stretch. The key for Velazquez will be not to let the speed horses get too much of a jump on him, because while it looks like Vino Rosso can run all day he has not yet shown explosive acceleration.
Connections: The partnership of Mike Repole and St. Elias Stable races Vino Rosso.
Repole also is the co-owner of Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy. Repole made his fortune when he sold his company Glaceau, maker of Vitaminwater and Smartwater, to Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion in May 2007. He subsequently co-founded and serves as chairman of BODYARMOR Sports Drink, the fastest-growing sports drink in its category.
Repole is best known in Thoroughbred racing as the owner of brilliant champion Uncle Mo and 2011 Travers Stakes winner Stay Thirsty.
St. Elias Stable is the racing operation of Vincent Viola, who is the owner of the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers and, like Repole, a native New Yorker. Viola is the co-owner of 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming.
In future Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, Vino Rosso is in terrific hands.
Pletcher won his second Derby last year with Always Dreaming — he also won in 2010 with Super Saver — and ranks first all time among North American trainers by purse earnings with more than $358.6 million through April 24. The seven-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer has won the Belmont Stakes three times (Tapwrit, 2017; Palace Malice, 2013; Rags to Riches, 2007).
Like Pletcher, Velazquez leads all North American jockeys by career purse earnings with more than $383.3 million.
A two-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding jockey Velazquez has four lifetime victories in U.S. Triple Crown races, taking his first Kentucky Derby in 2011 with Animal Kingdom and winning last year with Always Dreaming, plus the Belmont Stakes in 2007 on Rags to Riches and 2012 with Union Rags.
Pedigree: Vino Rosso is by two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, a locomotive of a racehorse who was blessed with tremendous stamina and the speed to make it useful. He did not have explosive acceleration and so far we’ve seen similar traits from many of his best offspring: elite overall talent and abundant stamina but more grinders than racehorses with eye-catching, makeup speed.
From his first six crops age 3 and older, Curlin already has champions Good Magic (also a 2018 Derby contender) and Stellar Wind, 2016 Preakness Stakes winner Exaggerator, 2015 Travers Stakes winner Keen Ice, 2013 Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, and 2017 Wood Memorial Stakes winner Irish War Cry along with several other Grade 1 winners. His 44 stakes winners through April 24 include 21 group or graded stakes winners as he has shown very capable of siring elite racehorses who excel going a route of ground.
Vino Rosso is the first starter for the Street Cry mare Mythical Bride, whose lone win in 13 starts came at one mile. Mythical Bride is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to multiple graded stakes winner Commissioner, the runner-up in the 2014 Belmont Stakes; and graded stakes winner Laugh Track, runner-up in the 2013 Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Commissioner and Laugh Track shared the talent trait but the former was a stamina racehorse by Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy and the latter a pure sprinter by Distorted Humor.
Vino Rosso’s second dam (maternal grandmother), Flaming Heart, by Touch Gold, won a pair of stakes around two turns and was graded stakes-placed at 1 1/8 miles.
Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Hot Lear, by Lear Fan, was a stakes winner at one mile and fourth dam (maternal great-great-grandmother), Medicine Woman, was a graded stakes winner and multiple stakes producer.
Vino Rosso is one of the few runners in the Kentucky Derby field who is bred to relish 1 ¼ miles with class and stamina on both the top and the bottom of this pedigree. Pair that with elite ability and a Hall of Fame rider who is an amazing judge of pace, and it stands to reason that Vino Rosso has a great chance to be rolling in deep stretch of the Kentucky Derby. He’ll have to improve significantly to win, but I think he’s in with a shot and has a terrific chance to crack the top three.