Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin unveils his inaugural Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 145thKentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4.
Feb. 2 featured three prep races offering qualifying Kentucky Derby points, and the schedule continues on Feb. 8 with the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, which offers points to the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale.
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1. Game Winner
The contrast in work patterns between him and stablemate Improbable has been noticeable, as his short works started off strong, and in his last work he went five furlongs (1:03 2/5) five full seconds slower than Improbable a couple of days later. His action isn’t as smooth as Improbable’s, but he is a determined runner and has beaten better quality horses. I do like the way he lowers his head and knows how to put horses away in the stretch. He has won three Grade 1 stakes, but the first two do not appear to have been against Grade 1 competition … at least up to this point. That cannot be said about the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he convinced many of the doubters that he is the real deal, overcoming a wide trip and a bumping match in the stretch to win going away. Game Winner relaxes early and can be placed anywhere, while Improbable takes a little longer to settle in stride. The bottom line is that both are exceptionally talented colts and likely will be scaring a lot of horses away over the next few months, depending on who Bob Baffert decides to send out of town and where. He has enough ammo to fire at almost all the preps.
After four easy breezes, he was let loose on Feb. 1 and blazed his five furlongs in a bullet :58 2/5, fastest of 22 works at the distance. Watching all his works and races, his mechanics are flawless. He has not missed a beat in any of them and is pure poetry as he glides over the ground while running perfectly straight. He has great extension to his stride, his lead changes are spot on every time, and he flips his ears around just waiting for instructions from the rider, who has yet to move his hands on him in a workout. In short, he looks to be a superior all-around athlete who does everything right. At this point, compared with Game Winner, he seems the more brilliant of the two and more eye-catching in action. But as mentioned, Game Winner has beaten better horses and may be more geared toward a mile and a quarter. But we don’t know that yet. They make a fascinating and impressive duo, and it’s scary to think that Baffert has several others who have shown a great deal of ability and promise and could be any kind.
It didn’t take him long to put it in high gear, as he breezed a sharp half mile in :46 3/5 at Gulfstream Park, second fastest of 73 works at the distance. He is more of a blue-collar horse who is always going to scrape and claw for everything he gets. His third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is actually better than it looks on paper, as he had to break from the 12-post, get to the rail, while dead-last, come off the rail to launch his bid between horses. After doing that, he cut back to the inside and finished with good energy, galloping out past the winner. His breeding also is blue-collar, but his sire General Quarters was most effective up to a mile and an eighth and his broodmare sire Trippi is more speed-oriented, so we have to see how far he wants to go. No doubt his physical prowess and his running style will help him.
4. War of Will
His competition at Fair Grounds looks questionable at this point, but he’s won his two starts on dirt with style. Expect an influx of talented horses to ship to Fair Grounds to escape the Baffert blitz. His most formidable local opponent in the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 16 could be the late-closing Limonite, who has been working well for his 3-year-old debut. War of Will had his first work back since his Lecomte Stakes victory, breezing a half-mile in :51. He joins new addition Omaha Beach as sons of War Front in the Top 12. One thing we do know about him is that he’ll run all day. He is inbred to the great Forli, sire of Forego, and his dam is inbred to the potent Harry Guggenheim (Cain Hoy Stable) mare Lalun through her sons Never Bend and Bold Reason, both major stamina influences in European breeding. Never Bend is the sire of the legendary Mill Reef and Bold Reason is the broodmare sire of Sadler’s Wells. Also, War of Will’s fourth dam is by English Derby and 2,000 Guineas winner Sir Ivor.
5. Win Win Win
There have been so many monster performances this year and we’ll just have to see where his fits in with the others. He had his first work since the Pasco Stakes massacre, breezing a half in a leisurely :51 4/5 at Tampa Bay Downs. Now the real competition starts to arrive, and he will also have to contend with the Tampa Bay-based Knicks Go, who’s been working brilliantly. But chances are they won’t meet until the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. I loved the way he settled into stride back in last in the Pasco and then cruised up to the pack, swooping by everyone in a flash and drawing off under hand urging. He is a very efficient mover and you had to love the way he pounced on his opposition, including the highly regarded favorite Cave Run, while coming home in a brilliant :23 4/5 and :12 flat to cover the seven furlongs in a blistering 1:20 4/5. Even though Tampa Bay had been playing fast, that is an impressive time for a young horse. Remember, this is a horse who displayed :45 and change speed at Laurel Park while battling on the lead.
6. Omaha Beach
I normally don’t put maiden winners in the Top 12, especially this high up, but this colt checks off every box, from class and brilliance to looks and pedigree. He was breathtaking winning an allowance race at Santa Anita Park on Feb. 2 by nine lengths in 1:21 flat for the seven furlongs, but I fell in love with him in his previous start against Nolo Contesto when he stumbled badly at the start in his dirt debut and still ran a sensational race to get beat a half-length, finishing eight lengths ahead of the third horse. How great would it be to have Richard Mandella make it to Louisville, and what owner deserves it more than Rick Porter, who has finished second twice in the Derby, once with the filly Eight Belles who sadly broke down while pulling up. Porter also thought he was going to win with Normandy Invasion, who made what looked like a winning move nearing the head of the stretch, but couldn’t sustain it. Porter has since bounced back from cancer thanks to a miracle treatment and it would make a wonderful story teaming up with Mandella, one of the most popular and well-liked trainers in the country. In Saturday’s race, he sat third behind the two leaders and then went by Polar, who was very highly regarded by trainer Mike McCarthy, like he was standing still. He quickly opened a five-length lead through a :43 3/5 half and just coasted the rest of the way to win under a hand ride. He is a beautiful mover with extremely efficient strides and just has a look of class about him. I’ll get to his powerful pedigree next week. He just passes every test.
7. Nolo Contesto
His maiden victory at a mile, racing wide and narrowly defeating Omaha Beach, who was eight lengths ahead of the third horse, was the classiest maiden race seen this year, and we saw what Omaha Beach did this past weekend. The only reason Nolo Contesto is below him is, with his scratch from last Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes he has only two career starts, while Omaha Beach was making his fifth career start, all at a mile or longer, so he has much more foundation. The Robert Lewis was an important step for him, timing-wise, but trainer John Sadler did not want to run him over that sloppy track. Now he will either have to stay in California and jump into stakes company in the San Felipe Stakes on March 9 against Game Winner or Improbable or ship out of town, where he could very well meet the other one. There was some thought about wheeling him back Sunday in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, but Sadler said it’s probably either the “San Felipe or travel.” Sadler and co-owner Kosta Hronis believe he’s special and he’ll be up to the task wherever they run him. Some may question his 80 Beyer Speed Figure for his last start, but the speed rating and track variant that day was 82-28, which adds up to a very strong 110, and you rarely ever see a track as slow as a 28 variant at Santa Anita on a surface listed as fast, so you know it was pretty deep that day. Omaha Beach jumped up from a 79 to a 90 Beyer on Saturday and I believe even that should have been higher, partly because it was based on the figure from the previous race. In contrast and more accurate is the “2 ½” Thoro-Graph figure by Nolo Contesto, which is very fast, especially for a horse making only his second career start. Just to compare, Mucho Gusto, who won the Robert Lewis, was coming off three Thoro-Graph numbers ranging from “7” to “8.” That’s how much faster Nolo Contesto was going into the Lewis. One more decent move forward and he’s already in range of winning the Kentucky Derby. I have no doubts at all that he and Omaha Beach are both extremely talented horses.
8. Mucho Gusto
He looked to be a one-dimensional frontrunner in his first three starts and Improbable blew right by him in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. But in his last work, he broke about six lengths behind his workmate, so Baffert was trying to get him to rate behind horses. And that is just what he did in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, relaxing behind the two dueling leaders, even though he looked to be the only speed in the race, and then cruising to the lead after turning for home and winning geared down by nearly five lengths in 1:41 4/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. The way Improbable handled him so easily in the Los Al Futurity, he needed to change tactics and run a race like this to be considered a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. Bob Baffert already has a big decision to make on how to separate Game Winner and Improbable, and now he has to throw this colt into the mix, along with several others, such as Coliseum, who tries to make amends in Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes. Pedigree-wise, Mucho Gusto shouldn’t have any problem stretching out. 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.
I moved him down a bit to make way for several horses who have run this year and have shown signs they could be special. He hasn’t run since the Hopeful Stakes and is still a ways from a race, so I’ll just wait and see where he shows up. I fully expect to move him back up once he runs. Also, he hasn’t been two turns, but with his pedigree I have little doubt he will excel at longer distances. I normally would not lower a No. 4-ranked horse for no reason, but this was a major shakeup week. He did breeze a bullet half-mile in :49 at Payson Park this week, so he’s coming along nicely. From a pedigree standpoint, I’ve gone over his bloodlines, but have to emphasize how much I love his close-up inbreeding to the Claiborne Farm mare Bound, who is by Nijinsky II, out of Special, and thus a half-sister to Nureyev, a half-sister to the dam of Sadler’s Wells, and a full-sister to multiple graded stakes winner Number. Special is by Forli, out of Thong, making her a half-sister to multiple Grade 1 winner and classic-placed King Pellinore and a full-sister to English champion miler and Irish champion 2-year-old Thatch.
10. Hidden Scroll
Yes, an unprecedented third maiden winner makes the Top 12. But it’s all about the eye test now and who looks to have star quality. None of the stakes winners I’ve seen recently shouts “Derby horse,” so perhaps it’s time to go by potential and who has shown that “Wow” factor. I wish his jaw-dropping maiden victory by 14 lengths on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park was on a fast track, but the way he took command and how he just glided over the ground suggests the surface had little or no bearing on the outcome. The drawback is having only three career starts before the Derby. We saw Justify do it last year while overcoming the long-standing Apollo curse. Can that be duplicated the very next year? Bill Mott and Baffert, although two of the all-time great trainers, are very different in their approach, so we’ll have to see just how far Mott is willing to go to make the Derby with a colt with so little racing experience. You know he is the last trainer to push a horse, especially a young horse, so it will be more about Hidden Scroll taking him there rather than the other way around. Mott knows this colt’s unlimited potential and how special he may be. That was one of the most spectacular debuts anyone has ever seen. Remember, Mott has plenty of backup just in case with the impending return of Mucho, and the impressive maiden winner Country House, both of whom have more racing experience.
His five-furlong work in :59 flat, second-fastest only to Improbable, suggests we’re going to see the same monster we witnessed in his first two starts last year, in which he romped by 10 lengths each time. He is nominated to the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 10, which would have seemed like a good starting point before the all-important stretch-out to two turns, but he probably will not run. There aren’t too many options left in Southern California other than the San Felipe Stakes, and, once again, that is going to be a tough spot in which to return. We’ll see if they write an allowance race for him. The key to him is how he handles the layoff and being shut down for the rest of last year. The feeling here is that he will be a much more polished and professional horse and hopefully be able to harness some of his speed, which he would need to do once he goes two turns. I have no idea how far he wants to go, but his first start will provide some indicator as to where he’s at right now. Putting him away was an unorthodox move, but I believe it will serve him well in the long run. He is no doubt a very gifted horse.
12. Knicks Go
The thought of him debuting in the Sam F. Davis Stakes Feb. 9 and winning like he’d be expected to win and then setting up a showdown with Win Win Win in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby looks very intriguing right now. But there likely will be a number of talented shippers for both races. He has been turning in some big works at Tampa, the latest being a half-mile breeze in :48 flat, so he should come out smoking, as he tries to restore his reputation following that dreadful performance breaking from the 12-post in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. But one bad day isn’t going erase what he did in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He looks to be a horse with a high cruising speed who can set the pace or sit right off it, and his pedigree suggests he’ll be able to carry his speed longer distances. Trainer Ben Colebrook could have had two Derby contenders, but lost eventual Withers Stakes winner Tax in a $50,000 claiming race last year.
Knocking On the Door
First , let’s go over the horses who were dropped off the Top 12. The one who did not compete and who I was really reluctant to drop was Galilean. With so much juggling going on and horses coming and going from the Top 12, I just decided that with him pointing for the state-bred California Cup Derby on Feb. 16 and expected to win that race with relative ease, we really won’t know much more about him until he tackles open company, possibly in the San Felipe Stakes, and that is still a ways off. I fully expect him to return to the list if he’s as good as I think he is. With him, it’s all about the eye test and how impressive he was in his last victory in the King Glorious Stakes going every quarter in :23 and change for a mile, winning under no urging whatsoever in his first start around two turns. Forget where he was bred. His pedigree matches up with the best Kentucky-breds. I loved what I saw in the King Glorious and I will just wait to see if he proves me right or wrong for having him in the first Derby Dozen. He normally would have worked over the weekend, but because the track has been closed due to the heavy rains, that will be delayed until this Thursday or Friday.
As for those who did compete, I actually think more highly of Gunmetal Gray now than I did before the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. He had no shot on that track and in what turned out to be a four-horse field after the first half-mile. And then there was him grabbing his quarter at the start. It wasn’t until I saw the photo of it that I decided to drop him because I have seen too many of those injuries turn into quarter cracks. I actually liked the way he was striding out down the stretch to get second and I have much more respect for him now. But until I see how that wound heals and know that it’s not going to develop into a quarter crack I will wait with him. Like Mucho, he likely will be back in the Top 12 if all goes well. As of late Monday he appears to be doing well, so we’ll take it week by week an look out for his next work.
As for Maximus Mischief, he was put in a tough position in last Saturday’s Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes trying to chase a strong frontrunner in Epic Dreamer and I believe he used himself being pushed hard out of the gate and staying close to him through pretty strong fractions and then being pushed a long way out trying to close the gap. Epic Dreamer never quit and only finished a length behind Maximus Mischief, but it was pretty obvious both horses were spent in the final sixteenth, as 128.70-1 shot Everfast, who was close up himself, surged past them in the final yards like a fresh horse to finish runner-up behind Harvey Wallbanger, who rallied on the rail. By the time Maximus Mischief did wrest control of the lead, he was unable to hold off the two closers. Maximus Mischief also got a bit washy before the race, so these are things he will have to straighten out before you can look at him as a top Derby contender. He is still a very talented horse, but not quite up to the Top 12 at this time.
Finally I had to drop Mihos for obvious reasons. I was never enamored with his setup race in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, in which he came home very slowly, but was trying to will Jimmy Jerkens to have a Derby contender, thinking maybe the Derby gods angle would be in play. Mihos did not run that badly in the Holy Bull, as he was stuck between horses and might have been a bit too close to the pace. He raced evenly the whole way and was moving well late, but could do no better than fifth, beaten 3 ¾ lengths. At this time I’m just not sure how good he is and how he stacks up against the top horses.
The Withers Stakes looked to be the best of the three major stakes, even though we ha three horses in a blanket finish. I do like what I saw from the winner, Tax, who stumbled coming out of the 1-hole and was rushed to the lead before settling off the pace. He appeared briefly to be losing contact with the leaders, but was able to find another gear and closed in along the rail. He was put in tight quarters trying to get through a small opening when the pace-setting Not That Brady came in under right-handed whipping, but fortunately for him, Not That Brady then drifted out when his rider switched to a left-handed whip. He was able to slip through and get a slight advantage, but was all out to hold off a resurging Not That Brady and Our Braintrust, who was recently turned over to Mark Casse. He came home in :13 flat to cover the 1 1/8 miles in a solid 1:50 1/5.
Tax is the story of the year so far. Owned and bred by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider and being by Claiborne’s big sire Arch, he started his career for a $30,000 claiming tag at Churchill Downs and finished a close second going 6 ½ furlongs, catching the eye of trainer Danny Gargan. When he came back for a $50,000 tag going 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland, Gargan claimed him and it’s been the claim of the year. Tax won that day by two lengths and then jumped right into the Remsen Stakes, where he finished third, getting run down late for second by Network Effect. He trained well all winter at Belmont Park and was put in the Withers, where he stamped himself as a legitimate Derby contender, especially with his pedigree.
In addition to being by Arch, his second dam, Yell, won the Davona Dale Stakes and Raven Run Stakes and placed in the Kentucky Oaks and Mother Goose Stakes. His third dam, Wild Applause, is a full sister to Hero’s Honor, winner of the United Nations Handicap, Bowling Green Handicap, and Red Smith Handicap, and a half-sister to Kentucky Derby, Travers Stakes, and Champagne Stakes winner Sea Hero. Wild Applause, who is by multiple stakes winner Glowing Tribute, by Graustark, sold at Keeneland for $5 million. Glowing Tribute’s dam, Admiring, is a full-sister to the brilliant Priceless Gem, dam of Arc de Triomphe winner Allez France, and a half-sister to Hall of Famer Affectionately. This family also traces to the legendary producer La Troienne.
Who knows how good Tax is at this point, but he is improving dramatically and no doubt is the claim of the year. Gargan does not want to back him up to a mile in the Gotham, so he likely will point him for the Tampa Bay Derby or the Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Polytrack at Turfway Park, both options on March 9, and then return to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on April 6.
The best horse in the Withers, however, likely was Not That Brady, a New York-bred son of Big Brown, who was coming off two impressive victories, including the Damon Runyon Stakes. Because of that, it was tough putting Tax in the Top 12 and not the runner-up. Breaking a step slowly from the outside post, Not That Brady got hung very wide and then charged to the lead on the first turn after going at least five-wide into the turn under recent bug boy Reylu Gutierrez like he was Secretariat in the Preakness. He set all the pace, opening a clear lead, and looked like he was going to get swallowed up by Tax on his inside and Our Braintrust on his outside, as he came in under a right-handed whip and then came out sharply under a left-handed whip into Our Braintrust. But amazingly he kept battling on, while continuing to bump with Our Braintrust, and actually looked to be coming back at Tax at the wire, falling a head short, while holding off Our Braintrust, who also ran a big race. To his credit, Gutierrez blamed himself for the defeat for not closing up the rail more and allowing his horse to drift out, which let Tax come through. He said. “This one’s on the rider; this is not on the horse and the team.” And Rudy Rodriguez and his team have a darn good horse, who has no quit in him.
The big question is, are all three of these horses that good? The 96 Beyer figure seemed pretty high for a three-horse photo, but perhaps they are all top-class horses. They did look good visually and seem like solid, hard-knocking horses, who have a hard-fought mile and an eighth race under them. Of all the horses who ran in stakes Saturday, I can’t wait to see these three hook up again, most likely in the Wood Memorial.
Getting back to the Holy Bull, it set up beautifully for 29.60-1 shot Harvey Wallbanger, who found an inviting opening along the rail and charged through to win by a length over the aforementioned Everfast, who just got up to beat Maximus Mischief for second. Harvey Wallbanger is another trained by Kenny McPeek, who also has Signalman on the Derby trail. All the horses in the Holy Bull will have to step up next time when the competition gets tougher. So the jury is still out on all these horses. But one thing you have to like about Harvey Wallbanger is that he’s never been worse than second in five career starts and has won his last two coming from off the pace.
Richard Mandella once kidded that when they gave out lessons on how to win the Kentucky Derby he must have been out sick. The presence of Mr. Mandella at Churchill Downs has been rare indeed, but would there be a more popular winner if he ever managed to win the roses despite missing that all-important class? Too bad he couldn’t have borrowed or stolen Bob Baffert’s and Doug O’Neill’s notes.
“I’ve been walking through Bob Baffert’s barn every day and learning through osmosis,” Mandella kidded. “They won’t know what hit them.”
It appears to be working, as Mandella not only hit the Derby trail with Omaha Beach, he found a juicy one-mile allowance race on Jan. 31 at Santa Anita for his resilient and consistent Extra Hope. He obviously felt that was a better spot than the more lucrative and important Robert B. Lewis Stakes two days later. Following a fourth in the Grade 2 Bob Hope Stakes last summer and a well-beaten third in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity in December, perhaps it was more important to give the colt a confidence builder before tackling the big boys again.
With the track sloppy and sealed and playing very quick, Extra Hope pressed the pace set by Gray Magician, took over on the far turn, and bounded clear at the head of the stretch to win by 3 ¼ lengths in a sprightly 1:34 3/5. From a visual standpoint he just seemed to float over the ground with very efficient strides and was getting stronger through the stretch. I loved his gallop-out as he continued on with enthusiasm and was tough to pull up.
Owned by Samantha Siegel’s Jay Em Ess Stable, who would be also be a very popular Derby winner, Extra Hope has now finished on the board in all seven of his starts and has improved since the addition of blinkers, breaking his maiden at 1 1/16 miles by nearly nine lengths.
“At first I thought he was just an average horse, but as he’s raced he’s gotten better,” Mandella said.
The big question with him is how far he wants to go. His sire is Shanghai Bobby, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Champagne Stakes, and Hopeful Stakes, who has not built up enough of a résumé to get a good gauge on and was sent to Japan recently. But he had not sired anything of note up to this point. Both of Shanghai Bobby’s grandsires were sprinters, and there is a good deal of speed in Extra Hope’s female family through Mr. Greeley and Nalees Man. His second dam was a listed stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles and is a sister to several stakes caliber sprinters. But on the opposite end, he should get stamina from his broodmare sire Tiznow, a two-time Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, and his third dam is by Mr. Leader, a son of Hail to Reason who sired three top distance horses who won the 1 ¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap, Travers Stakes, and Suburban Handicap.
Now that this colt has his confidence builder and turned in a flawless performance ,it’s time to start tacking on enough points to make it to Louisville. Once he and Omaha Beach get there perhaps this will be the year we can finally excuse Mandella for missing that class.
In kind of an oddity from this race, the second dams of first two finishers, Extra Hope and Kingly, are half-sisters. Kingly, with only a game maiden score at six furlongs under his belt, ran an unusual race, sitting behind the dueling leaders, seemingly having a perfect trip. On the turn he began backing up while under a very early whip. But he kept plugging away, while in fairly tight quarters turning for home, and was actually moving quite well in the final eighth to finish second. So he obviously is still learning and his next start will tell more about him. Bob Baffert is loaded so we’ll have to see what he decides to do with this one.
Speaking of Baffert, he sent out Coliseum for an eye-catching six-furlong work in a bullet 1:12 1/5 in company, breaking out of the gate and immediately falling some seven lengths behind his workmate, who he blew by and left far behind in the stretch. The last time Coliseum worked he appeared from a distance to be wearing a drop noseband, but this time it was obvious Baffert changed his equipment, which looked similar to an overcheck. Whatever equipment the colt was wearing in both works, there no doubt was a change. We’ll see in the Feb. 10 San Vicente Stakes if the son of Tapit, who looked so brilliant breaking his maiden first time out, can rebound off his disappointing effort in the Sham Stakes at 3-5 odds.
In other morning activity from the Baffert barn, we saw the return to the work tab of the promising Roadster, who breezed a half in :49 4/5. Following his 4 ¼-length debut victory, he was third behind Game Winner and Rowayton in the Del Mar Futurity as the 7-10 favorite.
Also on Saturday, the fast and consistent Call Paul rallied through the stretch to win the seven-furlong Swale Stakes as the 3-2 favorite. The son of Friesan Fire has now won three stakes sprinting, including the Saratoga Special Stakes last summer, but tired to finish third in his two races at a flat mile, the Champagne Stakes and Nashua Stakes. It’s hard to tell how far he wants to go, but so far he looks like he’s at his best sprinting. He ran his final eighth in :13 4/5 in the Swale, so that does not bode well for him trying to close at longer distances. Still, he is a horse any trainer would love to have in his barn. And he will win many more stakes in his career.
There was a bevy of maiden races over the weekend, most of them at six and 6 ½ furlongs. But one that was run at 1 1/8 miles was won in impressive fashion by Shadwell Stable’s Motagally, who has been improving rapidly with every race and looked terrific at Aqueduct Saturday, winning off by 6 ½ lengths in 1:52 as the 3-5 favorite. He had been running against the likes of Vekoma, Epic Dreamer, Moretti, and the highly regarded Tacitus. But he put it all together in his second straight mile and an eighth race, drawing off with long, impressive strides. He would need to get faster, but he definitely is a work in progress, and could be one to watch, especially for the Belmont Stakes.
A son of Union Rags, he is trained by Chad Brown, who is looking to get Network Effect to the Derby, breezing him a half in :49 4/5 at Palm Meadows over the weekend. If Network Effect can put himself in the race a bit sooner and not leave himself with so much to do he has the class and the closing power to be a major force on the Derby trail.
Looking at the six furlong maiden races at Gulfstream, I was very impressed with the Todd Pletcher-trained first-timer Soldado, who was bumped at the start and then turned in a big sweeping move to take over at the eighth pole before drawing off to score by 2 ¾ lengths in 1:10 flat, with runner-up Honest Mischief, the 6-5 favorite trained by Chad Brown, finishing 7 ¼ lengths ahead of the third horse in a field that included nine first-time starters. With Pletcher having so many well-bred and expensive horses, Soldado, a son of Verrazano, was purchased at the Timonium 2-year-old sale for a meager $8,000.
This was a visually stunning performance, as Soldado had to put in a long sustained run and looked like he had way too much to do to catch Honest Mischief, who had cruised to the lead with Jose Ortiz looking back with confidence at the head of the stretch. But Soldado was soon all over him, and drew clear with long powerful strides, coming home his final quarter in :24 1/5. although Verrazano was effective up to 1 1/8 miles, Soldado’s tail-female family is inundated with stamina. His second dam is by Theatrical, out of a half-sister to Broad Brush, by Majestic Light and traces to Ribot twice. Also in the female family are Nureyev and Arc de Triomphe winner Sassafras.
It’s just too bad Soldado got such a late start. Mark that name down. You will be hearing a lot from him in the near future. It will be interesting to see if Pletcher tries to pull a Justify and put him on the Derby trail despite his late start and go to the Derby with only three career starts. It’s a tall order indeed, but this colt may be special. He was the big bright spot over the weekend for Pletcher, who saw two of his main Derby horses, Moretti and Federal Case, run poorly in stakes races. Watch out for So Alive, winner of a Tampa Bay allowance race in January with blinkers on. The son of Super Saver, owned by Robert LaPenta, worked a half-mile in a sharp :48 2/5 at Palm Beach Downs for Pletcher. He could be his main Derby hope, along with Cutting Humor, who also worked in :48 2/5 the following day. The son of First Samurai is coming off a good second behind the talented Bourbon War and is likely to improve off that effort.
Speaking of Bourbon War, he breezed a half in :48 2/5 at Gulfstream and could be a real sleeper. There is no telling how good this son of Tapit is, but he looked fantastic winning an allowance race by 2 ¼ lengths over Cutting Humor, and the fourth-place finisher, beaten 12 1/2 lengths, was Everfast, who came off that race to finish second in the Holy Bull Stakes at huge odds. If you’re looking for a future book horse at big odds, Bourbon War is a horse you want to seriously consider. And at 50-1 in this week’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, he looks like the big value bet. I will definitely want a piece of that. After Everfast’s performance I even contemplated putting him in the Top 12, so don’t be surprised to see him there soon as I give that more thought. What I loved about his allowance win was the way he weaved his way between horses on the turn and then sliced through a narrow opening between horses turning for home and drew clear of Cutting Humor with a final sixteenth in :06 1/5. And I loved the gaps of 4 ¼ lengths to third and six lengths to fourth. Being inbred 3x4 to A.P. Indy surely doesn’t hurt. The more I look at this colt the better I like him. I just have to decide whether to wait for the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 2 or put him in the Top 12 before that.
Other maiden winners over the weekend were Who’s in Charge, who wired his field at Gulfstream going six furlongs in 1:10 2/5; My Mandate, who wired his field at Santa Anita going 6 ½ furlongs in a sprightly 1:15 flat; and Aquadini, who looked good winning at Fair Grounds by 5 ¾ lengths for Dallas Stewart, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:46 2/5.
No one pays much attention to starter optional claiming races, but there was one at Aqueduct on Friday that drew a surprisingly strong field of ex-claimers. It wasn’t as much about the winner, Durkin’s Call, who scored by a nose, as it was about the losers, who proved to be interesting gauges to more prominent horses. The odds-on favorite, Family Biz, was coming off a third-place finish in the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct behind highly regarded Hopeful Stakes winner Mind Control and Our Braintrust, who finished a close third in Saturday’s Withers Stakes. But despite his low odds and the class advantage, Family Biz could do no better than fourth in the five-horse field, beaten 8 1/2 lengths. Finishing third as the 3.30-1 second choice, beaten nearly four lengths, was Clench, who was coming off a third-place finish behind the sixth-ranked Win Win Win in the Heft Stakes at Laurel Park. And we all know what Win Win Win did coming off that race.
One horse who could face Knicks Go in the Sam F. Davis Stakes is Still Dreaming, who has been working up a storm at Tampa after shipping down from Graham Motion’s barn at Fair Hill. The son of Flatter, who breezed six furlongs in 1:13 2/5 on Saturday, is coming off an impressive maiden victory going a mile at Laurel, I which he scored by three lengths. He could give West Point Thoroughbreds three legitimate Derby contenders, along with Gunmetal Gray and Galilean.
It was good to see Code of Honor, a disappointing fourth in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes, turn in a bullet five-furlong breeze in 1:01, which is excellent time at Payson Park. He has always been very high on my radar, especially after his terrific performance in the Champagne Stakes, so it will be exciting to see him try to bounce back off that race. The same morning, the promising Tacitus breezed his five furlongs in 1:03 2/5. I also like the way Limonite is progressing at Fair Grounds, working five furlongs in a sharp 1:00 2/5, and he definitely is a name to remember for the Feb. 16 Risen Star Stakes. The son of Lemon Drop Kid closed fast to finish third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last time out. At Palm Beach Downs, Nashua Stakes winner Vekoma had his third work over the track, breezing an easy half in :51.
A horse we touted big last week, Jersey Agenda, coming off an impressive allowance score at Oaklawn Park, was back on the work tab nine days later, breezing a half in :49 2/5. In other works of interest, Mind Control, who passed the Withers, worked a half in :48 3/5 at Belmont Park. At Fair Hill, Alwaysmining, a winner of three in a row, including a victory over Win Win Win in the Heft Stakes at Laurel, worked five-eighths in 1:02 for the Feb. 16 Miracle Wood Stakes. And finally, let’s not forget about another very highly touted colt, Country House, who looked sensational breaking his maiden at Gulfstream on Jan. 17. The son of Lookin At Lucky breezed a half in :50 3/5 at Payson Park for Bill Mott.