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 weekend was the final respite along the Kentucky Derby trail until mid-April, as no preps offering qualifying points were held. The action picks up again in a big way on March 2 with the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, which offers points on a 50-20-10-5 scale to the top four finishers and is scheduled to feature several of South Florida’s top Derby contenders.
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1. Game Winner
His stablemate Improbable has made a stronger impression in the morning, and it’s extremely close for the top spot. I would think of them as the co-leaders of the division until they prove otherwise. I did like his seven-furlong work in 1:25 in company with Dr. Dorr and the way he asserted himself in the stretch, finishing a length and a half in front of his workmate and continuing on past the wire. He then came with a six-furlong work in 1:13 3/5, also in company with Dr. Dorr. Even trying to get a gauge on his win last fall in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is difficult. Although the second and fourth-place finishers, Knicks Go and Mr. Money, have not run well this year, Gunmetal Gray, Mind Control, and Well Defined have all won stakes this year. The bottom line is that, although Improbable has really impressed me, Game Winner is the champ, he’s won three Grade 1 stakes, and his Thoro-Graph figures are actually faster than Improbable’s. This is going to have to be decided in the arena.
I’m starting to think that maybe he should be No. 1, but it’s getting close to the March 9 San Felipe Stakes, so I’ll just wait and see what develops. Can we call Game Winner and this colt 1 and 1A and make them dead-even? He’s starting to look like he may be special. I cannot remember a horse so enjoyable to watch in action on such a consistent basis. He reminds me of American Pharoah in that regard. His latest works, six furlongs in 1:13 1/5 and then 1:12, were once again things of beauty. He is so athletic and light on his feet, and has such great extension to his stride. And he always works alone, so that tells you how willing he is. He has been machine-like all year in his works in that every one has been flawless. I also don’t believe Game Winner has beaten a horse the caliber of Mucho Gusto, and this one thrashed him for his only defeat. Yes, he is by a sprinter in City Zip, but City Zip sired Pacific Classic winner Collected and is a half-brother to Hall of Famer Ghostzapper. His second dam is a half-sister to Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Hard Spun, and his fourth dam, Darbyvail, is a half-sister to champion Little Current, who won the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes by seven lengths. Little Current is by Epsom Derby winner Sea-Bird and Darbyvail is by Epsom Derby winner Roberto. Be prepared to see him at No. 1 by the time we get to the Derby. But he still has a daunting obstacle in Game Winner.
3. War of Will
Many feel he is still a grass horse who happens to run well on dirt. But his sire War Front has proven he can sire top-class dirt horses, and his broodmare sire Sadler’s Wells, whose own broodmare sire is the classy dirt horse Bold Reason, winner of the Hollywood Derby, is starting to show up in the pedigrees of more and more dirt horses. Three straight impressive scores on dirt should eliminate grass from the conversation right now. The truth is, we really don’t know the quality of the horses he has beaten, but he has accomplished so much more than any other 3-year-old that he has to be considered one of the leading contenders at this point. Still, it was surprising to see him replace Improbable as the No. 2 ranked horse on the most recent NTRA poll. If he completes the Fair Grounds stakes triple by taking the Louisiana Derby on March 23, he will then attempt to become the first horse ever to use those three races as a springboard to a Kentucky Derby victory. Remember it is six weeks from the Louisiana Derby to the Kentucky Derby, and many feel that is too long. The two who won after such a long break are Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom.
4. Win Win Win
We’re almost at the end of February, and the Pasco Stakes winner is the No. 4 ranked horse. Yes, I said the Pasco Stakes winner. That should tell you all you need to know about this year’s Derby trail, which is all about gut feeling, visual impact, and projection. Standard handicapping tools do not yet apply. And in that respect, this guy fits the bill, although we still have no idea how far he wants to go. You had to love his bullet five-furlong work in :59 1/5, fastest of 24 works at the distance. There is certainly no questioning his speed. I admit it is late on the Derby trail to base a horse’s Derby chances on a seven-furlong listed stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. That race could have been an illusion, but until someone actually steps up and shows they deserve to be ranked this high, we’ll just keep him here and see what develops in the next couple of weeks.
5. Mucho Gusto
Even though he was no match for Improbable, he seems to be a different horse from the frontrunner we saw in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity back in December and now seems more versatile and professional. And he could not have won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes any easier, even though it was run in the slop. It seemed like a good time to move him up considering the lack of proven stakes horses among this group. He certainly has the stamina and may not be as far behind Bob Baffert’s top two as one might think. Remember, his sire Mucho Macho Man won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a photo and his broodmare sire Giant’s Causeway lost the Breeders’ Cup Classic in a photo. In his half-mile work in :47 3/5, he broke off by himself, but picked up unexpected company nearing the quarter pole. The rider of the other looked back and saw him coming and got into his horse a bit, but after matching strides for a short while, Mucho Gusto left him far behind, without urging, then galloped out very strongly.
He looks like the type who would appreciate the normal stretch and fairer surface at Tampa Bay Downs than the short stretch and speed-favoring track at Gulfstream Park. He is more of a relentless stretch runner who keeps coming at you. But trainer Ken McPeek has opted for the tougher spot in Saturday’s Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes with full confidence in his colt, who at least will hold a class advantage, and a win here is not necessary. He certainly has enough bottom and stakes experience to use this race as a prep to set him up for his final prep. He turned in a five-furlong breeze in 1:01 3/5 in company with Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes winner Harvey Wallbanger, basically as a maintenance work, as McPeek wasn’t looking for anything too fast at this point. He sat a half-length off Harvey Wallbanger and left him well behind, galloping out strongly. Harvey Wallbanger did not need as much as he will wait for the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby on March 30. The main concern from a handicapping standpoint is that Signalman’s Thoro-Graph figures have not been very fast and he will have to improve on them to compete with some of these faster newcomers who have emerged on the scene.
He has made a lot of progress in his past two starts, overcoming a terrible start and a large field, and demonstrating a strong closing kick, while moving up in class to finish within a couple of lengths of the No. 3 ranked horse in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. And I liked the way he maintained the margin in the final furlong and didn’t let War of Will increase his advantage. The farther he goes the better. But as mentioned, he has to make sure he doesn’t pull the stretch antics he did in his previous start, lugging in on several occasions. Even if it is just greenness, he doesn’t have a lot of time to work out those kinks. But other than that he seems to have the qualities of a good horse, combined with the pedigree.
8. Nolo Contesto
I loved his six-furlong work in 1:12 3/5 in company. Breaking off about three lengths behind his workmate, he collared him at the head of the stretch, switched leads on cue, and after the rider shook the reins at him once, he took off and left his workmate, finishing five lengths in front, striding out beautifully. The rider gave him a little right-handed smack going into the turn galloping out, as he has shown a tendency to drift out a little. He is entered in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at Santa Anita Park on March 1 against a pair of Bob Baffert rockets, Dessman and Roadster. Having skipped the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, these are the cards he’s been dealt and if he runs on Friday he will then have to finish first or second in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6 to ensure a spot in the Kentucky Derby. He is still a work in progress with only two career starts and all you’re looking for from him is to be competitive and be there at the finish. Off this work, he should get a lot out of this race and move forward off it.
He turned in a strong five-furlong work in 1:00 breezing over the deeper Payson Park surface in preparation for Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. Working in company with the highly regarded Tacitus, he sat a length behind with a good deal of the work obscured by fog. What was really impressive was the way his rider was way up in the saddle through the stretch as he dusted Tacitus. Nothing to do but wait and see how special he really is and how he stacks up against proven stakes horses going two turns and running on a fast track for the first time. As mentioned, his Thoro-Graph number is far and away the fastest figure of any 3-year-old. The question is, was it too fast, too soon and where does he go from there? Even a bounce of several points still makes him the fastest 3-year-old. Trainer Bill Mott and owner Juddmonte Farms are not the types to push a horse to make the Derby, so it’s all up to him. We should know all the answers after Saturday.
His return to the Top 12 is contingent on his running in the Rebel Stakes on March 16 and not having to put all his eggs in the one proverbial basket of the Santa Anita Derby. His connections need a stopping off point to see just what they have, rather than go all or nothing against top-class horses where a troubled trip could cost him a spot in the Kentucky Derby. He is an imposing individual with muscles on his muscles and looks like the real deal. And, remember, he is a Cal-bred in name only. Running every quarter in :23-and-change in the King Glorious Stakes back in December and covering the mile in 1:35 flat was very impressive, sustaining those kinds of fractions. He did what he had to at 1-20 in the Cal Cup Derby on Feb. 18, but he will have to step up in each of his next two starts. I easily could have put his stablemate Gunmetal Gray in the Top 12, but being by Exchange Rate I want to see how that one fares in the San Felipe Stakes to indicate whether the longer distances might be in his range.
11. Dream Maker
He bounced out of his big allowance victory on Feb. 9 with a half-mile drill in a sharp :47 4/5. He is yet another unknown factor who desperately needs a class test, which he will get in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. As we’ve mentioned numerous times already, this year it is all about the eye test, and with nothing much emerging from stakes to blow you away, he showed enough in his recent victory to suggest that the talent is there to run with the best that’s out there. But like so many others, he still has to prove it. We know that trainer Mark Casse has always been very high on him and he should no problem stretching out to longer distances.
12. Super Steed
One of the great students of breeding and mating is Rob Whiteley, who did all the matings for Carl Icahn and later formed Liberation Farm. In all, he has bred 19 Grade 1 winners and a Colonial Cup winner. Whiteley co-bred Super Steed’s dam, as well as her half-brothers, Grade 1 winners Danza, who upset the Arkansas Derby and was a troubled third in the Kentucky Derby, and Majestic Harbor, winner of the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, who also won two stakes at 1 ½ miles. If you can throw out his fourth-place finish in the Sugar Bowl Stakes, which was too short for him and because he wasn’t feeling well, according to trainer Larry Jones, and throw out the Smarty Jones Stakes, run on a speed-favoring track, then you can just appreciate what this colt is capable of by focusing on the explosive, sweeping runs he made on the far turn in his maiden victory back in November and in the recent Southwest Stakes on Feb. 18. He can’t be fully trusted until he puts in back-to-back big efforts and can consistently demonstrate that powerful turn of foot we have seen from him.
Knocking On the Door
Omaha Beach developed a quarter crack, and although trainer Richard Mandella, the vet, and the blacksmith believe they can patch it up, I want to wait to see how it progresses and if he can be ready to make any kind of impact. Mandella is still very high on this horse, but as now he looks to be up against it. I still have tremendous faith in him, but at this point it’s best to take the wait and see approach and how the quarter crack responds. He is in no position to have any setbacks at this stage.
It’s been an odd Derby trail for Todd Pletcher. Normally, by now Pletcher’s Early Bird Specials are dominating the races in Florida, but this year his experienced horses have not come through, so Pletcher has had to rely on the latecomers with little experience, such as Soldado and Intrepid Heart, who looked terrific winning their career debuts in February. We saw Bob Baffert spit in the eye of history last year with Justify. Can Pletcher do the same thing this year? Well, for the record he has run a couple of horses in the Derby off just three career starts, with Danza, coming off his upset score in the Arkansas Derby, finishing a troubled third, and with Dunkirk, who lost all chance after stumbling badly in the slop shortly after the start and getting bumped, knocking him out of contention. He came back to run a gutsy second in the Belmont Stakes, battling back to snatch the place spot from Derby winner Mine That Bird after leading all the way through some solid fractions. Neither horse ran again after placing in their respective Triple Crown races.
Pletcher added another live wire to his Kiddie Corps when Spinoff, making his third career start and first in six months, ran off with a mile and 40-yard allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 22, winning by 11 ¾ lengths over a pretty talented horse in Cave Run, who was coming off a well-beaten third to Win Win Win in the Pasco Stakes. The son of Hard Spun broke alertly and pressed the pace from the inside. John Velazquez apparently did not like being down there, so he eased back, checked over his right shoulder to make sure he was clear and then swung to the outside. Cave Run, running well back in the third, made his move with a strong run and quickly closed in, charging up right behind Spinoff as if he were going to make a race of it. But Spinoff just shrugged him off and bounded clear under right-handed whipping, increasing his lead with every stride with his ears pricked the entire stretch run and Johnny V just waving the stick at him to keep him focused. If the race was longer he probably would have won by 20. This was an extremely impressive performance in every regard and reminiscent of Always Dreaming’s 11 ½-length romp in a mile and 40-yard allowance race at Tampa Bay, which launched him to a Kentucky Derby victory. There is no way to compare times over a span of two years, and Tampa has been playing fast this year, but for the record, Spinoff ran a fifth of a second faster than Always Dreaming.
This gives Pletcher three very talented colts, with this last one having a couple of extra races under his belt, including a good third in the Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite last summer. Expect to see him make a lot of noise from here on and leaping into the Top 12 even before his next start. This is a horse definitely worth playing right now in the future book while you can get him at a decent price.
Spinoff’s dam, Zaftig, won the Acorn Stakes and was third in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and Zaftig’s dam, Zoftig, was a Grade 1 winner and Grade 1-placed. Spinoff is from a strong Claiborne Farm family that goes back to Continue, the dam of Tuerta, who produced Swale, and File, who produced Forty Niner. I also like seeing the potent John Nerud-bred Cozzene close up as the sire of Zoftig, as well three doses of Native Dancer – two through Raise a Native and one through Natalma in the first five generations.
The question is, do you jump right into the Xpressbet.com Florida Derby on March 30 off the one start (Always Dreaming had time to get in another allowance race at Gulfstream), or do you look elsewhere, like the Rebel Stakes, and get two more starts before the Derby? Either way, I have confidence this colt, owned by the Wertheimer brothers, can be a major factor whether he has one or two more starts. He just may be that good. So, unlike past years when Pletcher has launched a full-scale attack from the start, he could wind up pulling a sneak attack this year with his inexperienced second wave. With three excellent starts under him and a resounding two-turn victory, Spinoff looks like a live one who is destined for the Top 12.
Pletcher also has a couple of others who are on the upswing, Outshine and the grass horse Current, who has enough dirt in his pedigree to give it a try.
Speaking of full-scale attack, we have seen trainers loaded on the Derby trail before, but we have never seen an arsenal quite like that of Bob Baffert, with top guns Game Winner, Improbable, Mucho Gusto, Dessman, Roadster, Kingly, and Much Better. The more I watch Dessman’s runner-up performance in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 10, the more impressed I am considering what a powerhouse of a horse he is. Watching his impressive five-furlong work in 1:00 3/5 in company, he dwarfed his workmate and has such a commanding presence and such a huge stride you have to believe he is going to improve when the distances stretch out, which likely will come in the above-mentioned allowance optional claimer on March 1 at Santa Anita in which he is entered. There is nothing in his pedigree to suggest he won’t. It did get a little hairy in the stretch watching him and his workmate have to split two horses in front of them nearing the wire. But neither flinched and both went about their business. He was a bit headstrong breaking off, but quickly settled in stride and was never asked by the rider. He is still well behind the others, but could be a sleeper if he can get in a good stiff two-turn race before it gets too late. Much Better, who no one is talking about despite being stakes-placed on dirt and grass, turned in a five-furlong work in :59 2/5.
Baffert also worked Roadster, who went six furlongs in 1:14 2/5 for that allowance optional claimer on March 1. After his rapid 1:10 3/5 work last week, he was taken wide at the head of the stretch to make sure he didn’t go that fast again, and came home smoothly with good extension. Baffert has been putting a lot of bottom into him in his works and it will be interesting to see how returns in Friday’s allowance races vs. stablemate Dessman.
One horse I hated dropping from the Top 12 last week was Bourbon War, who has an excellent shot in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. He tuned up for his big test with a solid half-mile breeze in :48 3/5 at Gulfstream, in which he again immediately got his head down into the bit, hugged the rail the whole way, and was very smooth down the stretch before galloping out strongly. The one thing that might give one pause to consider is the recent disappointing performance of Cutting Humor in the Southwest Stakes, who before that finished second to him in his allowance victory. But Cutting Humor did not have the best of trips, so we’ll see.
One of the highlights of the Fountain of Youth workers was Code of Honor, even though it was only a :49 3/5 half-mile breeze. Headstrong early, he quickly settled in stride and was really reaching out with big beautiful strides. Unlike some of the others who run a bit wide in front, he had his front legs close together as he continued to build up momentum in the stretch and was running through the wire before galloping out strongly. He still has to bounce back from a disappointing performance in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes and you can bet all eyes will be on him. This will be a tough spot and if he can show anything resembling what we saw in the Champagne Stakes last fall, where he finished second despite a poor start, he will definitely be back on everyone’s radar as a leading contender.
Another who made a big impression was last fall’s Nashua Stakes winner Vekoma, who will be making his long-awaited 3-year-old debut in the Fountain of Youth. Working in company, I loved the way he pulled away from a top-class older horse in Breaking Lucky, as if he were totally outclassing him, covering his five furlongs in 1:00 3/5. And Breaking Lucky was being pushed along pretty good the entire stretch run. This was pretty eye-catching and should set him up for a huge performance. He still has that paddling funky action, but has really matured into a powerful-looking 3-year-old, and he hasn’t let anything stop him so far. He also would vault up everyone’s list with a big performance first time out. By Candy Ride, he has a number of speed influences in his female family, so we’ll see how he stretches out to two turns.
A longshot in the Fountain of Youth is Epic Dreamer, who surprisingly outran Maximus Mischief early in the Holy Bull Stakes, only to tire a bit at the end. He could improve off that effort with a more reasonable trip and looked good working five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5, fastest of 19 works at the distance. Working sharply in company at Gulfstream was Admire, who finished fifth in the Withers Stakes for Dale Romans, but who has two 1 1/8-mile races in him already. The son of Cairo Prince worked five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 under no urging, while his workmate, the talented Come On Gerry, was being ridden hard but still unable to keep up in the stretch.. Also working for a possible start in the Fountain of Youth was undefeated Global Campaign, who went five furlongs in 1:01 4/5 in company wearing his usual front wraps. Speaking of Maximus Mischief, injury has forced him off the Triple Crown trail.
Bill Mott managed to find a spot for Mucho’s long-awaited 3-year-old debut. The Hopeful Stakes runner-up is entered in a six-furlong allowance race on Friday at
Gulfstream and should be a big favorite against only four opponents. He still has a lot of stretching out to do and very little time, and you know Bill Mott is not going to rush him. Six furlongs is not ideal, but he desperately needs to get a race in him and this at least would be a first step on the Derby trail. But after that is where it gets dicey.
Expect major changes to the Derby Dozen and the Derby picture in general after the March 9 cavalcade of stakes, featuring the San Felipe Stakes, Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, and the Gotham Stakes, along with the Jeff Ruby Steaks and Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park. During the next two weeks, eight of the Top 12 will be in action, so something’s gotta give.
Gunmetal Gray turned in another terrific work, and if he runs back to these works in the San Felipe Stakes, he could surprise a lot of people. As mentioned, the only reason he is not in the Top 12 now is because, being a son of Exchange Rate I just want to see if he turns in that same closing punch we saw in his last two races and if he looks like he wants more distance. But I was very impressed with his second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes and definitely in his last two works. This time the Sham Stakes winner rattled off five furlongs in :59 4/5. Working by himself he again got right down into the bit, cut the corner beautifully, switched leads on cue, and came down the stretch hugging the rail straight as the proverbial arrow. The rider was pushing good nearing the wire and he continued on with good energy, again cutting the corner. You couldn’t have asked for a better work. I am looking for a big effort from him in the San Felipe, Baffert or no Baffert.
Keith Desormeaux sent out San Felipe hopeful Easy Shot, third in the Robert Lewis Stakes, for a five-furlong work in 1:03 in company. Breaking off six lengths ahead of his workmate, he was headed turning for home, then drew clear in the stretch under no urging at all to finish 1 ½ lengths in front.
Two of the top New York-base horses had works over the Belmont Park training track. Withers Stakes winner Tax, one of the great stories of the young season, had an easy half-mile breeze in :51 1/5, while Jerome Stakes and Hopeful Stakes winner Mind Control had a more serious work, going five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 3/5 in preparation for the March 9 Gotham Stakes. Also pointing for the Gotham is the third-place finisher in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, Tikhvin Flew, who should appreciate the extra furlong and more with his stout pedigree. With only two career starts and an April 18 foaling date, he should have a lot of room for improvement. Saratoga Special Stakes and Swale Stakes winner Call Paul had an easy three-furlong blowout in :38 4/5. Time to see if he’s ready to stretch out again after well-beaten thirds in the Champagne and Nashua Stakes.
The once highly regarded Knicks Go, who has floundered in his last two starts after a pair of terrific performances in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is apparently still sticking around, breezing a half in :49 3/5 at Tampa Bay Downs. Perhaps he deserves one more shot considering what he is capable of.
The Bernardini colt Aquadini, who broke his maiden by 5 ¾ lengths going 1 1/16 miles at Fair Grounds in his third career start, tuned up for a possible start in the March 23 Louisiana Derby, breezing a half in :49 2/5 for Dallas Stewart.
If there is one story that has racing fans intrigued on this year’s Derby trail, it is the crazy series of races from Maximum Security. On one hand, when a horse debuts in a $16,000 maiden claiming race and then runs in a pair starter optional claimers, all in sprints at 6 ½, six, and seven furlongs, there is no way you can consider him a Derby horse. On the other hand, when that horse wins those three races by margins of 9 ¾ lengths, 6 ½ lengths in 1:09 4/5, and 18 ¼ lengths in 1:21 3/5 and gets an outrageous 102 Beyer Speed Figure in the last one, you have to wonder just what we’re dealing with. What is even crazier is that he owned by Gary and Mary West, who also own the Derby favorite Game Winner. He is bred to run longer, so it will be interesting to see where trainer Jason Servis runs him next. Could it actually be the Florida Derby? There obviously is a reason Servis ran him so cheaply first time out, so could he have been that misjudged by an excellent veteran trainer? As I said, this one is intriguing. We are looking at a potential instant cult figure, as evidenced by Jeff Siegel, one of the most astute racing analysts in the country, ranking him the No. 10 Derby contender. You gotta love it.
Two of the big questions that arose last week are whether Anothertwistafate, winner of the El Camino Real Derby, and Somelikeithotbrown, winner of the John Battaglia Memorial Stakes, can duplicate their impressive synthetic track performances on the dirt, They both no doubt are talented horses with bright futures, but are still unknown factors as Derby horses. Although you want to see them back on dirt in top company, the $200,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park beckons on March 9. But Anothertwistafate could show up in the Santa Anita Derby if his connections decide to get very ambitious. You had to love the way he was reaching out through the stretch in the El Camino Real Derby, getting stronger with every stride.
At Sunland Park, 4-5 favorite Wicked Indeed, fourth in the Lecomte Stakes, closed well in the Mine That Bird Derby, but came up a length short of catching the wire-to-wire winner Hustle Up, a New Mexico-bred gelding who was winning his third straight for trainer and co-breeder Todd Fincher.