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 two weeks’ 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.
Top honors this week had to go to Code of Honor. After he was beaten by 7 ¾ lengths in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes in his season debut and largely dismissed as a Kentucky Derby candidate, the chestnut colt found redemption with a three-quarter-length victory in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 2. Trainer Shug McGaughey said he thought perhaps he did not have Code of Honor as fit as he needed to be entering the Mucho Macho Man. McGaughey was determined to have him better prepared for his second start, and Code of Honor responded with a three-quarter-length victory while setting new career highs for Equibase Speed Figure (111) and Beyer Speed Figure (95) while equaling his career-best Brisnet figure (95). The Hall of Fame tandem of McGaughey and jockey John Velazquez gives Code of Honor a terrific chance to reach his potential. For more detail on why I believe the future is very bright for Code of Honor, check out this week’s Making the Grade blog.
2. Bourbon War
Looking at Bourbon War’s past performances, you have to like the steady progression he has made in four career starts. He posted a clear victory in his career debut and then a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes, essentially pairing his Equibase Speed Figures with a 90 for his debut and a 91 for the Remsen. He earned a 107 Equibase Speed Figure for a 2 ¼-length allowance win on Jan. 18 in his season debut and then used an eye-catching rally to finish second on March 2 at Gulfstream Park in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. A blistering pace certainly helped set up Bourbon War’s finishing rally, but the 110 Equibase Speed Figure looks like an incremental improvement that he might be able to improve upon in his next start, which is expected to be the Xpressbet Florida Derby on March 30. I really like his trajectory for trainer Mark Hennig, and his pedigree – he’s by leading sire Tapit out of Grade 1 winner My Conquestadory – offers hope that Bourbon War’s ceiling might be pretty high.
Last seen running third in August 2018 in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite, Spinoff returned with a runaway 11 ¾-length victory on Feb. 22 at Tampa Bay Downs in his first try stretching out around two turns. The performance earned Spinoff a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure and stamped the Hard Spun colt one to watch on the Derby trail from the barn of Todd Pletcher. Spinoff pressed a very fast pace and still had enough stamina to accelerate clear of the opposition. He did finish rather slowly, which is a cause for concern but somewhat forgivable given there was no other horse in the same area code. A homebred of the Wertheimer brothers, Spinoff’s dam (mother), Zaftig, won the Grade 1 Acorn Stakes at one mile in 2008 and his grandam (maternal grandmother), Zoftig, also was a Grade 1 winner. The Tampa race was Spinoff’s first in his comeback from an injury, which is always a significant hurdle, but he dispelled any doubts with the best performance of his career.
Honorable Mentions: Roadster dazzled in his career debut on July 29 at Del Mar before finishing third as the 7-10 favorite in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. A minor throat procedure subsequently sidelined him and forced him to miss the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but the gray or roan colt returned with a victory on March 1 in a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita Park. Roadster stalked the pace from third early and then put away 3-5 favorite Nolo Contesto impressively in the stretch en route to a 2 ½-length win. He earned a 104 Equibase Speed Figure and an 89 Beyer Speed Figure, so he’ll need to improve, but it was a very nice starting point for the promising colt by Quality Road out of stakes-winning sprinter Ghost Dancing.
I didn’t like Signalman’s chances to win the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes because I didn’t think he was fast enough and I thought he might need a race coming off the layoff, but you couldn’t deny that he had been extremely consistent against strong competition. What I didn’t expect was a complete dud in the Fountain of Youth in which he was 12 lengths off a very fast pace through the opening half-mile and still only managed to pass two horses to finish seventh, beaten by seven lengths. As I said in this week’s Making the Grade profile of Code of Honor, 3-year-old racehorses are often still growing mentally and physically at this time of year and they are animals, not machines. Sometimes we have to forgive a bad performance from a quality horse, and I’m willing to do that for Signalman. But he took a step in the wrong direction in his season debut. For a horse who needed to take at least one big step forward to begin with, he has a lot of ground to make up with less than 10 weeks until the Kentucky Derby.
After an impressive maiden win on Jan. 4 in his 3-year-old bow for trainer John Sadler, Nolo Contesto looked poised to take another step forward on March 1 in an allowance race that also featured the aforementioned Roadster. Sent off as the 3-5 favorite, Nolo Contesto finished second by 2 ½ lengths in an OK performance, but serious Kentucky Derby contenders handle their business at this time of year in allowance races. I still think there is legitimate talent there, but Nolo Contesto has yet to dip his hoof into stakes competition. Coming up short in an allowance race in March did not inspire confidence that he’s ready to make the class jump.
3. Super Steed
An example of the highs and lows of horse racing, after winning the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 18 at Oaklawn Park, Super Steed is now off the Kentucky Derby trail with a bone bruise that will only require rest to heal. Super Steed will need 60-90 days off, meaning he’s very likely out until late summer/early fall. The good news is he is expected to make a complete recovery. “Thank God there is no surgery, nothing is needed,” trainer Larry Jones said. “He just needs rest.”
Of Note: If you are surprised not to see Hidden Scroll on the Cooling Down list, you might have a point. I was especially high on him as one of the few 3-year-olds to actually run a fast race and had him among my top five Derby contenders. Truth is, he did drop a couple places, but he still absolutely belongs in the top 10 after setting a very fast pace through an opening quarter-mile in 22.80 seconds and a half-mile in 45.69 seconds in the Fountain of Youth and then holding on to finish fourth, beaten by only three lengths in his second career start. I though he showed determination late and, while he took a step back from the 115 Equibase Speed Figure he earned for his debut win on Jan. 26, the 107 speed figure he earned in his stakes debut was still faster than many of the top 3-year-olds. Maybe I’ll be proved wrong, but I think that race could really help him build his foundation for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott.