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 two weeks ago.
In this week’s edition, the focus is the previous two weeks 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.
1. Omaha Beach
If you read last week’s Making the Grade profile on Omaha Beach, you know I really like his chances in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. If you didn’t, here is an abbreviated case: his speed figures are strong relative to his peers; he has an ideal running style and a Hall of Fame trainer (Richard Mandella) and jockey (Mike Smith); he clearly is improving at the right time; and he has a pedigree that features plenty of class and stamina. I was really impressed with how he fought off previously unbeaten champion Game Winner in the closing stages of the second division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 16 at Oaklawn Park and then galloped out well ahead of that rival. If the Kentucky Derby was today, Omaha Beach would be my selection.
There were three candidates for the top three spots in this week’s edition who had only a maiden win on their résumé and won a graded stakes to punch their ticket to the Kentucky Derby. I love Omaha Beach, but it was really difficult separating the other two (Cutting Humor and By My Standards), so instead I shifted courses and went with Anothertwistafate because his ability on a dirt main track was legitimately in question entering last weekend. After three straight front-running victories on the synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields, including a seven-length runaway in the El Camino Real Derby, Anothertwistafate made his second start on dirt in the Sunland Park Derby on March 24. In his only previous start on dirt, Anothertwistafate ran ninth, beaten by 15 lengths, in his career debut in a three-quarter-mile sprint. Not only did Anothertwistafate perform much better on dirt in the Sunland Park Derby when he finished a fast-closing second by a neck to Cutting Humor (who needed a track-record-setting performance to beat him), he also showed he could run well without the lead. He dropped 1 ½ lengths off the pace on the backstretch and then finished powerfully in the stretch, completing the final eighth of a mile in under 12 seconds after stalking a fast pace. He essentially paired his El Camino Real Derby Equibase Speed Figure, improving from a 102 to a 103, and with six weeks of rest he should have enough time to ensure another strong effort. His Beyer Speed Figure (95), Brisnet figure (99) and TimeForm US rating (112) also indicate he is fast enough to be competitive.
This was a real tough call between Cutting Humor and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards, but I opted for the Sunland Park Derby victor here. After a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, in which he was beaten by 8 ¾ lengths, Cutting Humor bounced back nicely to win the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby on March 23 by a neck over the aforementioned Anothertwistafate. Cutting Humor’s final eighth of a mile in 12.18 seconds was eye-catching and why, if forced to choose today between this First Samurai colt and By My Standards, I’d take Cutting Humor. He was within two lengths of a very fast half-mile in 45.63 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.63, yet he was still able to finish strongly on his way to setting a set a new track record for 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.94. He gives two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Todd Pletcher a solid one-two punch for the May 4 classic along with Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff. From a pedigree perspective, Cutting Humor is a half-brother to Grade 2-placed stakes winner Irish You Well and from a nice Claiborne Farm family.
I profiled By My Standards this week after a visually impressive rally on the inside to win the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby on March 23 by three-quarters of a length. While his Equibase Speed Figure (96) came back a bit slow, his Beyer Speed Figure (97), TimeForm US rating (117), and Brisnet figure (102) all were strong relative to this group of 3-year-olds. … I left Long Range Toddy, winner of the first division of the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 16, out of the top three because he already had established a higher baseline than the trio of Omaha Beach, Cutting Humor, and By My Standards, each of whom only had a maiden win to his credit. Long Range Toddy has won the Remington Springboard Mile and then finished second by a neck in the Smarty Jones Stakes and third in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes before closing powerfully to defeat highly regarded Improbable by a neck in the Rebel’s first division. He, too, has very competitive speed figures at his best when compared with his peers: Equibase (102), Beyer (95), Brisnet (97), and TimeForm US (117) for the Rebel.
1. Mucho Gusto
Coming off a 4 ¾-length win in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, I expected more from Mucho Gusto as the 9-10 favorite in the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby on March 24, but he faded late after setting a very fast pace and finished six lengths behind the top pair. He dipped from a career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure to a 94 for the Sunland Park Derby, which obviously is the wrong direction for a 3-year-old at the end of March. Perhaps even more importantly, with only 24 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard and six more 100-40-20-10-point scoring races over the next three weeks, he could be on the outside looking in on Derby day. I still think Mucho Gusto is a very nice racehorse, but he really needed a stronger finish and a top-two placing in the Sunland Park Derby.
This Lookin At Lucky colt generated a ton of buzz after running second to War of Will in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford in his stakes debut on Feb. 16. I fully expected him to be the second betting choice in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby on March 23, but he was somewhat lukewarm on the board at 6.40-1 odds, and he delivered a lukewarm performance. He launched a bid and drew within 1 ½ lengths of the lead in early stretch but faded late and finished fourth, beaten by 6 ½ lengths. There were a couple of excuses that might explain a dull effort – he broke slowly and raced wide throughout – but I really wanted to see him accelerate when called upon in the stretch and he came up empty. With 30 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, Country House is positioned a little better than Mucho Gusto, but I couldn’t back him in the Derby even if he got in off a disappointing race like the Louisiana Derby.
3. War of Will
Something was clearly amiss with Lecomte Stakes and Risen Star Stakes winner War of Will in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby – a few strides after leaving the starting gate it looked like both hind legs almost gave out – and according to trainer Mark Casse he came out of the race very sore. Although he was much improved the next day, my guess is his connections will be very careful with War of Will. Even after the early adversity, he still battled his way up to track just behind the leaders before fading late to finish ninth of 11. This is an extremely gifted and game racehorse, perhaps my favorite of this entire class, but you need a 3-year-old in peak condition coming off a strong race to have a realistic chance to win the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, the horse who looked like the most consistent, trustworthy 3-year-old of this crop now might be the biggest question mark. Let’s hope Casse can get him back to top condition, because I am sure that was not the real War of Will we saw in the Louisiana Derby.
Of Note: You might have expected to see Rebel Stakes runners-up Improbable (division one) and Game Winner (division two) listed above – and they did drop a bit in my Derby Top 10 rankings – but I thought both the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity winner and the 2018 champion 2-year-old male ran well in their respective returns from long layoffs. I believe they both got something significant out of their defeats and should be much improved in their final Kentucky Derby prep races. At the same time, a little bit of the luster did come off of Game Winner as he tasted defeat for the first time, as did Improbable, who also entered the Rebel looking like a potential monster. … Sham Stakes winner Gunmetal Gray will miss the Triple Crown races after he suffered a condylar fracture in training. He underwent successful surgery on March 24 but his connections won’t know for at least 90 days if he will be able to return to racing. Here’s hoping for a complete recovery for a terrific talent.