Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 145thKentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4.
Last Saturday, Maximum Security and Plus Que Parfait each earned 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby with wins in the Grade 1 Xpressbet.com Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group at Meydan Racecourse, respectively.
This Saturday, April 6, is arguably the most important date for prep races on the Derby calendar, with three contests scheduled that offer 170 total qualifying points apiece to the top four finishers, distributed on a 100-40-20-10 scale: the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park; the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct; and the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course.
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1. Omaha Beach
You couldn’t have watched his last work, a bullet half-mile in :47 4/5 without feeling very good about this horse and the progress he’s been making. He was just cruising off a workmate and when set down inside the eighth pole he took off opening seven lengths in a flash and showing great extension. Trainer Richard Mandella said he’s just blooming and looks like a million bucks. He’ll have his hands full in the April 13 Arkansas Derby, but I just want to see him strong at the end and not losing ground in the last eighth of a mile. I know Mandella is very excited about him and that’s good enough for me in a year when no one has emerged as a bona fide star. Now that he has paired his last two races on Thoro-Graph, it’s time to make one more move forward to set him up for a big number on the first Saturday in May.
2. Game Winner
Although his half-mile work in :48 4/5 with Dr. Dorr doesn’t seem all that exciting, I thought this was one of his better works, the way he leveled off immediately, the way he cornered, and most of all the way he dug down and wouldn’t let Dr. Dorr get by him. Remember, not only is Dr. Dorr a graded stakes winner, he was Justify’s workmate, so Game Winner has been tested in the morning. He then came back and turned in an almost identical work with a different workmate, going six furlongs in 1:13 2/5, again breaking off a half-length in front and digging in down the stretch. I love how smoothly he’s been going in his recent works. But all of a sudden owners Gary and Mary West have another Derby horse, and a homebred at that, in Maximum Security. They sure wouldn’t mind going into the Kentucky Derby with a Santa Anita Derby winner and a Florida Derby winner. Trainer Bob Baffert compares this colt to Silver Charm in terms of grittiness, and he’s been showing it in the morning working in front of horses. It would be interesting to see him on the lead in the stretch and see if he lets horses get by him. We just have to see how he handles coming back in three weeks off a hard race in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. Judging from his works, he appears to have bounced out of his runner-up finish in the second division of the Rebel Stakes in great shape and his energy level is high.
Bob Baffert sure isn’t standing pat on his training of this colt. He worked him in company for the first time and with blinkers for the first time. He had him break off two lengths behind his workmate. He was striding our beautifully, but is still cocking his head to the outside, and his workmate did gallop out in front of him. But you can’t fault his time of 1:12 4/5. It was strange seeing him behind a workmate and Game Winner in front of a workmate. Like Game Winner, he’s on an excellent Thoro-Graph pattern. With his new training style and the possibility of blinkers being added, we really have no idea what to expect in the Arkansas Derby in regard to how he will be ridden. On paper, everything looks good as far as his speed ratings and progression, but you still have to wonder if he should have been caught in the first division of the Rebel Stakes, despite his wide trip. He seemingly had that race locked up in midstretch. However, we really don’t know good Long Range Toddy is right now. The Arkansas Derby should be quite a battle.
He had an easy half-mile breeze in :51 in preparation for the April 13 Arkansas Derby and a showdown with Omaha Beach and Improbable in what could be the most important prep of the year. I know this colt is improving in leaps and bounds at the right time, but I really believe he is turning into a better horse than most people think and is a very serious contender. He demonstrated his sharpness by working five furlongs in 1:00 flat. It’s one thing to see a lightly raced horse improving at the right time, but you have to love it when a horse with three one-mile races and two 1 1/16-mile races under him is improving. That’s quite a solid foundation. If you’re a speed figure person, however, you do have to take into consideration that he ran a “4 ¼” in the Rebel, compared to a “1 ½” by Improbable, so you can imagine the difference in ground loss. Long Range Toddy is going to have to keep improving, and by three to four points, to be considered a major threat on speed figures. What is cause for optimism is that he improved three points off his previous two races and could do it again.
Todd Pletcher’s horses seem to be on an upward spiral, and none more so that this colt. I believe his runner-up effort in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby was a major step forward, and perhaps Pletcher is right in liking the six weeks break before the big race. I am still a bit skeptical with that based on the record of the Louisiana Derby in the Kentucky Derby and the record of horses coming off a six-week layoff, but I just like this colt too much to make me back off him. You can’t just go by the stats in regard to his Louisiana Derby performance. You have to take into consideration the fact that he raced greenly in the stretch, trying to get out a little, which made jockey John Velazquez go to a right-handed whip, and still pulled well clear of the third horse and was running straight at the end. He is on an excellent Thoro-Graph pattern and not only ran nearly two points faster than the winner, he ran the same number as Omaha Beach in one division of the Rebel Stakes and two points faster than Long Range Toddy in the other division, despite the greenness and making only his second start in seven months. So there is a lot to like about this colt and I would hope Velazquez sticks with him, especially after Code of Honor’s lackluster performance in the Florida Derby.
You can look at this enigmatic colt’s performance in the Xpressbet Florida Derby in two ways. You can either be impressed by the way he dominated the race and came home his last three-eighths in a sensational :35 4/5 (:23 2/5 and :12 2/5) or pay little attention to it because the runner-up was a 71.50-1 maiden and the top pair stole it running one-two the whole way around off slow fractions. I put him fairly high up for several reasons. I do love that final three-eighths; only good horses come home that fast on the lead. Yes, he slowed the pace down to :48 4/5 and 1:12 4/5, but if you’re thinking Kentucky Derby that actually is a positive. I don’t want a horse who goes out there in :45 and change and 1:09 and change. I want to see horse I know has blazing speed be able to slow the pace down and relax as he did, with his ears up and flipping back and forth just following his rider’s cues. We know he has blazing speed because he went into the race off the fastest Thoro-Graph figure of the year except for Hidden Scroll’s maiden win. He jumped six points from his second start to his third start and still ran a monster race in a Grade 1 stakes going two turns for the first time and not running against claimers for the first time. Trainer Jason Servis sure had no idea what he had, so forget the quality of those first three starts. The fact is, he is undefeated with a staggering average margin of victory of 9 ½ lengths. And I don’t believe he needs the lead. As for defeating a maiden, Bodexpress had pretty much the same last-out Thoro-Graph number as the three Florida Derby favorites, so he did have credibility and is improving. This fascinating colt could be something special, and may end up being known as one of the most misjudged horses of all time. But I just spoke to racing manager Ben Glass, and I'll will tell the whole story next week. There is a reason why he ran so cheaply.
When you really think about it, what this colt did in winning the Louisiana Derby was pretty impressive. Not only did he win coming off a maiden victory, he was given some obstacles to overcome and he overcame them like an old pro, being behind horses, altering course and darting to the inside, and then coming between horses and outrunning Spinoff to the wire. As mentioned earlier, however, he did run a significantly slower Thoro-Graph number than the runner-up, saving ground the entire race. And we still have no idea how far he wants to go. But if he can stretch out another eighth of a mile with no problem he still is on a good Thoro-Graph pattern. He just needs to get faster. So there are things to like about him and other things to question. This is what happens when you have lightly raced horses who emerge on the scene in March and April. You just don’t know what you’re dealing with and that makes it difficult to get a handle on them.
I really have no idea how impressive the Sunland Park Derby was other than it was a good race for this runner-up colt visually, especially the way he was lengthening his stride in the final furlong. But we really don’t know how the winner Cutting Humor stacks up, and third-place Mucho Gusto didn’t look as if he wanted any part a mile and eighth the way the race shaped up. This colt is still a bit of an unknown, as are many of them this year. I do like all the conditioning he has and all the miles under him, which shouldn’t make the six-week layoff to the Kentucky Derby too much of a problem. I have made a number of references over the past few years about horses coming to the Derby after prolonged periods of time at high altitudes, such as monster longshot winners Mine That Bird and Canonero II, as well as Conquest Mo Money, who nearly upset Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby at 17.60-1 a couple of years ago coming from an extended stay at Sunland Park. Well, Anothertwistafate has to remain at Sunland Park to train because a horse in his barn at Golden Gate Fields died of equine herpesvirus, and it could actually benefit him in regard to the Kentucky Derby if he remains there long enough before shipping to Churchill Downs. Hey, there are a million angles in racing, especially on the Derby trail, so you never know. It doesn’t hurt to throw it out there.
9. Win Win Win
He worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 at Fair Hill. I haven’t lost faith in this horse, despite his no-show on the other weekly Derby polls. He is certainly eligible to jump right back up near the top with a big effort in his next start. But talk about being under everyone’s radar, he was not listed as a probable or even possible for either the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets or Toyota Blue Grass Stakes until Monday (April 1) when it was announced he will run at Keeneland. Seems the tracks weren’t aware of it before then. Trainer Michael Trombetta said it was between those two races, but he was concerned about the deeper track in New York. He also would be able to keep Irad Ortiz Jr. as his rider if he ran in the Blue Grass, and he feels that Keeneland would fit his style of running more. Trombetta also said this colt has done very well since his third-place finish in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. The biggest issue with the Blue Grass is dealing with the full field and early cavalry charge right into that first turn. So post positions are going to be important. We really don’t know his best running style because of poor starts, but if he is best running closer to the pace than he has been before, then he sure doesn’t want to draw an outside post with that sharp first turn.
His most recent work, a half-mile in :49 4/5, was far more impressive visually than his previous work. This time, working in dense fog, he broke off in front of his workmate and was moving with more authority. He is still a work in progress and has a lot of upside after turning in a performance in the Tampa Bay Derby he didn’t look like he was ready for. He now heads for the Wood Memorial and there is no pressure on him to win. A good performance, one in which he is running strongly again at the wire, would set him up nicely for the Kentucky Derby. Again, there are so many stakes winners on this year’s Derby trail who are still unknown quantities because they simply have not raced enough. So we can only project what they will do in upcoming races. After the drastic improvement he showed from his first two starts last year, we can safely predict we only saw the tip of the iceberg at Tampa Bay Downs. He is still a bit green and has to learn how to keep his head a bit lower, and we’ll see if he is more polished in the Wood Memorial and can take another step forward.
This could very well be Bob Baffert's secret weapon that he is just waiting to unleash in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. Having to finish first or second against Game Winner, Instagrand, Nolo Contesto and the others is not an easy task, but this horse is just coming around and may be ready to pop a big one. Baffert is really tightening the screws with strong six- furlong works five days apart, the most recent in company with a blinkered workmate who can run. The pair finished up nearly on equal terms in a bullet 1:12 3/5. Roadster had previously worked six furlongs in 1:14. I would like to see him drop his head a little more when he turns for home and cut that corner better, but he’s been moving well down the stretch. Remember, he was all the buzz in the Baffert barn last year after he broke his maiden first time out. Then he exited the Del Mar Futurity with a breathing problem that has been alleviated. Like so many others, it’s going to get awfully tight trying to get in the Derby and if he is to get a starting berth he will have to earn it on Saturday. Judging from his works I don’t know if he has the closing punch to run horses down, so expect to see him make his move earlier on.
12. Cutting Humor
He’s a very solid horse who held on to the final spot this week because of the disappointing efforts by Code of Honor and Bourbon War, but he could very well drop off after Saturday’s three big prep races, which should help put this perplexing puzzle together. But he does seem to be improving; we just have no idea how good he is or how far he wants to go. After his alarming regression in the Southwest Stakes, his Thoro-Graph number leaped nearly seven points in the Sunland Park Derby, making him competitive with the leading 3-year-olds. With such a big jump, perhaps the six weeks break before the Kentucky Derby will benefit him. What is important to remember about the Sunland Derby is that as quickly as Anothertwistafate was getting to this colt at the end, the challenger stopped gaining right before the wire and never got by him on the gallop-out. Not only does Todd Pletcher, who was counted out earlier in the year, now have two horses in the Top 12, he could very well have a couple more after this weekend. We know Starlight Racing has owned a small piece of Justify, Audible, and Improbable, but they would love nothing more than to see their familiar blue silks back in the Kentucky Derby.
Knocking On the Door
I’m not discounting the possibility of rebound efforts by Code of Honor and Bourbon War in the Kentucky Derby, just as I’m not discounting a much-improved effort by War of Will off his Louisiana Derby debacle, but there is no way to keep the first two in the Top 12 after their performances in the Florida Derby, and no way to keep War of Will on until he shows he is healthy and trains up a storm. Code of Honor showed he is still a bit green and was unable to keep a straight course in the stretch at Gulfstream Park, wandering around a bit and not firing late. Bourbon War made a pretty decent move on the far turn, but the slow pace, wide trip, and fast come-home time by the first two made it nearly impossible for him to win. He still has to be considered a legitimate Derby contender. The question with both horses is whether they will be as effective at a mile and a quarter. Their pedigrees are okay, but nothing there to reassure you they will handle the distance.
As I have mentioned, the Florida horses in general have been pretty slow according to Thoro-Graph and most of them ran to their past numbers. Bourbon War had an excellent number in his allowance victory, but regressed 2 ½ points in his second-place finish in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. Maximum Security, as mentioned earlier, was coming off a race that was much faster than anything the others were coming off of, and Bodexpress, the 71.50-1 maiden who ran second, was coming off a number that was right there with the others, so numbers-wise, this result was not as far-fetched as some might think. War of Will had paired up two very fast numbers before the Louisiana Derby, so with him it’s just a question of what he got out of the race and how be recovers from the minor injury suffered at the start of the race.
Earlier last Saturday at Meydan, Plus Que Parfait rebounded off two disappointing efforts in Derby preps at Fair Grounds by winning the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group and stamping his ticket to Louisville. But last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes runner-up did not make the Top 12, because I don’t believe he was the best horse in the race. If I were to venture a guess I would say that the runner-up, fellow American Gray Magician, will receive a faster Thoro-Graph number because of how wide he was every step of the way and how much farther he had to travel than the winner. I thought Gray Magician ran a terrific race and was running strongly at the wire. That’s not to take anything away from the winner, who saved ground the whole way but had to come between horses in the stretch before outrunning Gray Magician and local horse Manguzi in a tight three-horse finish. I do love Plus Que Parfait’s pedigree and am certain he will have no trouble with the mile an a quarter, especially having already won at 1 3/16 miles. His pedigree top and bottom is inundated with stamina as well as class influences.
The main problem I have with both horses is traveling to Dubai and then traveling back home and running in the Derby in five weeks when it usually takes horses anywhere from two to three months to run back in the U.S. after traveling overseas for the Dubai World Cup. And those are tough, battle-tested older horses. It is very different being based in Dubai and running as opposed to having to travel there and back. Both of these horses had hard races, so there is a major concern whether they can bounce out of this race and be at their best in five weeks. And remember, they weren’t exactly world beaters over here. One thing we did learn is that Gray Magician is much more effective coming from farther back, as he did in his only victory, a 9 ½-length maiden romp, in which he was five lengths back, than running right up with the pace, as he did in his last three defeats.
There were two horses who were in the Top 12, and on whom I was extremely high, but had to drop them after disappointing races. I now am back on both bandwagons. Well at least having one foot on. Both are now huge longshots, but I am giving them a second chance. One is Country House, who came up empty in the stretch of the Louisiana Derby to finish fourth, and with 30 points might need to run in the April 13 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes. Right now he is okay being positioned at No. 17 on the Derby points leaderboard. But there are four major preps to come. The reason I am liking Country House again is I am going to forgive his Louisiana Derby considering how wide he was on both turns and what a strong run he put in on the far turn, looking like a winner at the head of the stretch.
Despite getting beat 6 ½ lengths and failing to sustain his run, he basically earned the same Thoro-Graph number he did in his second-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and was two points faster than his impressive maiden victory. So with his pedigree and his turn of foot, and being trained by Bill Mott, he gets a mulligan and is back to being a legitimate longshot contender.
The other horse is Dream Maker, who I wrote about extensively after his jaw-dropping allowance victory at Fair Grounds that earned him a spot in the Top 12. He came back and turned in a dreadful performance in the Tampa Bay Derby, but I have convinced myself that race was too bad to be true, whether it was because he despised the Tampa Bay Downs surface or just was having a bad day. But his allowance win was too visually stunning to be a fluke, and after his recent bullet half-mile breeze in :46 flat at Keeneland, the fastest 48 works at the distance, I believe he may be ready for a huge rebound performance in the Blue Grass Stakes. I know trainer Mark Casse absolutely loved this horse and I am ready to jump back on his bandwagon as well.
Now comes the make-or-break weekend. The following weekend, I don’t expect much of a change in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park with three of the top four ranked horses in my Derby Dozen running along with Galilean, another who had been in the Top 12. Most likely three of those horses will run well enough to still be major contenders, although Galilean does need a huge effort to crack the Derby field. He showed he is ready by working five furlongs in :59 3/5 at Los Alamitos. I know he’s been dropped from the Top 12, but only to make room for major stakes winners. After the smoke clears from this weekend, he could very well be back on in advance of the Arkansas Derby. He is better than his third-place finish in the first division of the Rebel Stakes. He just needs a better trip.
But this weekend, anything can happen in the three stakes, especially the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes, and there no doubt will be new names added to the mix, as only two of the Top 12 horses will be in action at Keeneland and Aqueduct. The key horses in the Wood Memorial will be Gotham Stakes winner Haikal and Tacitus. If Haikal can duplicate his one-turn form going two turns, then he will be become one of the leading contenders for sure and an exciting addition to the Top 12.
The one Blue Grass starter in the Top 12 is Win Win Win, a horse that no one else has on their Derby list. This is going to be a cavalry charge that very well could be oversubscribed. You can count on a full gate. Coming up from Florida will be Vekoma, third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, along with Signalman, who could bounce back big-time from his dull effort in the Fountain of Youth, So Alive, who has been working great for Todd Pletcher, the late-running Sir Winston, and the aforementioned Dream Maker. Signalman and Vekoma also have bee turning in sharp works and appear ready for a top effort. Coming off the Polytrack after crushing the Turfway Park Derby preps will be Somelikeithotbrown, and D. Wayne Lukas will be represented by Market King, who managed to hang on for third, beaten over eight lengths, after setting the pace in the second division of the Rebel Stakes at odds of 48.30-1. Dale Romans has two longshot possibilities in Admire and Moonster. Both would be huge prices.
In addition to having an explosive closer like Haikal, the Wood Memorial will be a rematch between the Withers Stakes one-two finishers Tax, who has been working super, and Not That Brady, the latter who disappointed in the Gotham Stakes, and also feature the return of Outshine, who was so impressive when running second in the Tampa Bay Derby. Look for big improvement out of the son of Malibu Moon, who worked five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs. He, along with So Alive, could easily provide Todd Pletcher with his third and fourth Top 12 horse. And don’t forget about two new faces trained by Jason Servis, impressive allowance winner Final Jeopardy and runaway maiden winner Grumps Little Tots. We’ll see if he runs both of them. The whole scenario of the race could depend on whether Bob Baffert returns with the speedy Much Better. Also, there is Joevia, and Pletcher could try two turns with Overdeliver. These three would likely be in control of the pace, and no one wants to see all three in there more than the connections of Haikal.
The Santa Anita Derby will be highlighted by Game Winner and stablemate Roadster and the return to California of Instagrand, who has been working great since chasing a suicidal pace in the Gotham Stakes in his 3-year-old debut. He gets a rider switch to Flavien Prat. A horse to keep an eye on is the former Top 12-ranked horse Nolo Contesto, who I still believe is a very talented horse who just needs to mature a little. But he could be ready to make his presence felt. And there is San Vicente Stakes winner Sparky Ville, who is possible for the Santa Anita Derby. If he starts, he will be stretching out to two turns for the first time.
In Japan, Der Flug captured the Fukuryu Stakes, giving him 40 points, but he is not nominated to the Derby and would have to pay a late nomination fee.