A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were last week.
In this week’s edition, the focus is the previous week of races. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Tacitus made his stakes debut a winning one in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9, rallying from seventh to take the lead in deep stretch before pulling away to win by 1 ¼ lengths at 8.90-1 odds. In his previous race, Tacitus race closer to the pace going a mile at Aqueduct, but he showed some versatility and maturity in rating under jockey Jose Ortiz when facing a much faster early tempo at Tampa Bay Downs. While his speed figures – 105 Equibase Speed Figure, 93 Beyer Speed Figure, 95 Brisnet figure, 117 TimeForm U.S. rating – did not come back quite as fast as Gotham Stakes winner Haikal, they were very close, and were achieved in a two-turn race. I also think there is reason for optimism as this colt matures and tackles longer distances based upon his pedigree. Tacitus is by leading sire Tapit, sire of three of the last five Belmont Stakes winners, out of 2014 champion older female Close Hatches, a five-time Grade 1 winner at 1 1/16 to 1 1/8 miles. Throw in Hall of Famer trainer Bill Mott and Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz and there is plenty to like in Tacitus.
Shadwell Stable’s homebred Haikal showed while winning the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on March 9 that he is a fast and talented 3-year-old. I love to see the steady progression he’s made. It makes me think he’s building a foundation block by block. As I mentioned in the capsule above, Haikal’s speed figures were strong relative to other Derby preps this year in what has been an uninspiring group to date. Haikal earned a career-best 104 Equibase Speed Figure, a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, a 102 Brisnet speed rating, and a 118 TimeForm U.S. rating, the latter equaling Tax and Code of Honor as the fastest rating for a Derby prep winner in the calendar year. My concern with Haikal is stamina. He’s never competed in a race around two turns on raced farther than a mile and while his pedigree has plenty of class it is pretty light on endurance. I’m definitely not counting him out – he cleared a significant hurdle impressively in his graded stakes debut – but I do want to see him stretch out before I buy in on any Derby buzz for Haikal. Read more about Haikal in this week’s Making the Grade profile.
The bay colt by 2008 Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner Big Brown has handled himself nicely against elite competition since the third start of his career in August 2018. Somelikeithotbrown ran second in Grade 3 races on the grass at Saratoga and Belmont Park, finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, and won both the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes and Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks by open lengths on the synthetic main track at Turfway Park. The Jeff Ruby on March 9 was especially impressive as Somelikeithotbrown dominated while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles and dictated the pace when no other entrant seemed interested in taking the lead. The Jeff Ruby speed figures came back light, but I don’t think he’ll have trouble with stretching out to 1 ¼ miles. The reason he’s not higher on this list is obvious: Somelikeithotbrown’s best races have come on grass and synthetic surfaces and his lone try on dirt was … not good. He finished seventh, beaten by 13 ½ lengths in his career debut and only try on dirt in July at Saratoga. But I’m also not willing to completely toss Somelikeithotbrown because of that one start, which came on a sloppy track and at a 5 ½-furlong distance that was well short of his ideal spot. He does need to clean things up a bit in the stretch; he was late changing leads and zig-zagged through the final sixteenth of a mile in the Jeff Ruby. But I think we owe it to this classy colt to give him a shot in a two-turn dirt race before dismissing him as a viable Derby candidate.
Honorable Mentions: I thought Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Outshine ran pretty well in his graded stakes debut for Todd Pletcher, but it’s tough to be too high on him after seeing Tacitus blow his doors off in deep stretch. … Tampa Bay Derby pacesetter Zenden held on reasonably well to finish fourth, beaten by only three lengths, in his first race longer than seven-eighths of a mile. He was asked to really run early and set the pace through a very taxing half-mile in 45.85 seconds. I thought Zenden’s Tampa Bay Derby was encouraging.
This is probably far too harsh for a talented colt coming off a long layoff and stretching out from three-quarters of a mile to a mile, but I have to admit I was disappointed with Instagrand’s third-place finish in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on March 9. I had him ranked fourth among my Derby contenders and dropped him several spots. I was a little more forgiving than usual because of the wicked pace – 44.42 seconds for the opening half-mile – but Instagrand was 4 ½ lengths back at that point in the race and was fully extended to edge pacesetter Much Better by a nose for third. The Gotham should be a solid starting point for Instagrand and a useful building block for the 2019 Kentucky Derby trail, but I viewed him as a potential monster coming off two wins in as many starts as a 2-year-old, both by 10 or more lengths. He was no monster in the Gotham.
2. Dream Maker
Dream Maker’s two tries in stakes competition as a 2-year-old did not go especially well. He finished fifth by 4 ¾ lengths in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes and 12th, beaten by 24 lengths, in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. Like many others, I got swept away by the Tapit colt’s season debut – an 8 ½-length runaway in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on Feb. 9 at Fair Grounds – and thought he’d really improved and matured after four months off. I thought he was ready to try graded stakes competition again in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, but instead of a race like his season debut he ran like he had in stakes races as a 2-year-old, finishing 10th in the 11-horse field. I still believe there is a stakes horse lurking somewhere inside Dream Maker, but it doesn’t look like that talent is coming out on the 2019 Kentucky Derby trail.
3. Well Defined
Well Defined’s front-running victory in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes reminded racing fans who were captivated by his Florida Sire In Reality Stakes romp as a 2-year-old just how good he can be when he puts it all together. In hindsight, however, it looks like his top performances are as much a product of circumstances as ability. The With Distinction gelding is simply a different racehorse when he’s allowed to dictate the pace. Let him coast along without pressure on the front and Well Defined is capable of running a very fast race and dominating. But if you force Well Defined to employ different tactics, as Zenden did when he zipped to the front in in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, he becomes far less formidable. I expect we’ll see several huge races from Well Defined in the coming months and years, but if he’s a need-the-lead runner incapable of settling just off the pace and passing one or more horses late, the Kentucky Derby trail can be unforgiving as it was in his Tampa Bay Derby eighth-place finish.
Of Note: Win Win Win rallied from seventh as the 7-5 favorite in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby to finish third by 2 ½ lengths. It was by no means a great race from a horse coming off a dazzling effort sprinting in the Pasco Stakes, but I also didn’t think he disgraced himself at all in his first try stretching out and navigating two turns. … Sham Stakes third-place finisher Much Better ran way too fast early in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes. It’s not rocket science. He led the field through an opening half-mile in 44.42 seconds and was still hanging around within two lengths at the finish. I’m giving him a pass.