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.
Last weekend, Gray Attempt won the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park to earn 10 Derby qualifying points. On Feb. 2, three qualifying points races will be held, each offering Derby points to the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 scale. They are the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
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1. Game Winner
As long as he continues to work steadily without any setbacks it is hard to deprive him of the top spot following three Grade 1 victories, concluding with an impressive score in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He can adapt to any pace, any scenario, and less than ideal trips, and can beat you from anywhere on the racetrack. But is he as talented as Improbable? It’s tough when the No. 1 ranked horse is not scheduled to start until March 9. As of Tuesday morning (Jan. 29), we’re still waiting for his next work.
He breezed five furlongs in 1:02 and couldn’t have done it any smoother. From a visual standpoint he is a beautiful mover and he knows how to deliver a finishing blow to his opponents. He puts them away with authority and runs away on his own. You love to see that in a Derby horse. We’ll get a further gauge on him when stablemate Mucho Gusto, who he handled easily in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, runs in Saturday’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Remember, although his sire City Zip was a sprinter, he sired a Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles. Plus, this colt’s female family has several stamina influences, although his second dam is by Stravisnky, who was purely a five- and six-furlong sprinter in Europe. His third dam is by stamina influence Turkoman, out of a half-sister to Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Little Current.
He had his first breeze of the year, going an easy three furlongs in :39 4/5 at Payson Park. He’s not going to blow you away with his brilliance, but is as honest and consistent as they come, finishing first, second, and third in Grade 1 stakes, and has shown he can overcome adversity. He just keeps coming at you, from anywhere on the track. The big question is how much brilliance he has, and I would like to see a quicker turn of foot. His broodmare sire, Trippi, basically is a speed influence and although his sire, General Quarters, did set a track record in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, he is by Sky Mesa, whose offspring are known more for their speed. General Quarters could get 1 1/8 miles, and Trippi, although a top-class sprinter, was able to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles and win the Flamingo Stakes. So we’ll just have to see how far he wants to go.
Trainer Bill Mott keeps adding to his list of Derby hopefuls, and I’m not quite sure now where he fits, especially after the spectacular debut last weekend by Hidden Scroll. I love everything I’ve seen from him so far, and being by Blame and inbred 3x3 to Claiborne Farm mare Bound, he should have no problem stretching out to two turns. But he still has to do it and make the transition from 2 to 3, and I’m not even sure just where he fits among Mott’s Derby horses. He’s now up to a half-mile in his breezes, going an easy :50 1/5 at Payson Park. As highly as I regard him, he is one who could slip down the ranks as others run and make their mark. There are always one or two on whom I remain stubborn, and I admit he may be ranked too high at this point in his career. But I am looking for big things from him, so we’ll see where he’s ranked by the time he runs.
5. War of Will
It took four races for him to try dirt for the first time, and he obviously has found a home winning his two dirt starts by five lengths in the slop and four lengths on a fast track. He has the right running style, combining tactical speed with a strong closing punch, and has pulled away from his opponents in the final furlong in both his dirt starts. There is little not to like about him. We know his sire War Front has been successful with both dirt and grass runners, and some might think that Sadler’s Wells will push him more to the grass side. But Sadler’s Wells is out of a mare by top-class dirt horse Bold Reason, and Sadler’s Wells’ dam Fairy Bridge is a half sister to Nureyev, the broodmare sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. And Fairy Bridge is a half sister to Bound, who is the great granddam of Mucho on both his sire’s and dam’s side. War of Will also is inbred to Forli, sire of Forego. So there is plenty of dirt in his pedigree.
6. Win Win Win
I never would have thought a horse would be ranked this high based on a victory in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. But that performance was so brilliant and so powerful, he looks like he could be something special, especially closing his last three-eighths in :35 4/5 and last eighth in :12 flat, coming from last and annihilating his opposition. As mentioned in detail last week, his pedigree is inundated with classic winners. He has a very efficient stride that covers a lot of ground, and I liked the way he made up ground in the Pasco, doing it methodically with a sustained run, closing in with every stride, before swinging wide entering the stretch and just powering away from his rivals under a hand ride. It’s a big jump up from the Pasco, but that race was an eye catcher and there is just no telling how gifted this horse may be.
Okay, here we go, as the first of the big-name 2-year-olds officially launches his Derby campaign Saturday in the Withers Stakes. And what makes it even more exciting is that his talent at this point seems limitless. A victory in the Holy Bull Stakes would vault him right up there with the Bob Baffert-trained pair at the top of this list. He’s won his three career starts by a total of 17 lengths, from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, and has been in complete control every step of the way. I do like the way he sat off the leader early in the Remsen Stakes before taking charge and then putting a lot of separation between him and favorite Network Effect. With the Remsen foundation under him, he didn’t need a great deal of work, but showed his brilliance immediately, working a half in :46 4/5 and five-eighths in a blazing :58 flat. Not needing much else, he was given an easy half-mile in breeze in :50 and is now ready to take another step forward. Can a son of Into Mischief out of a Songandaprayer mare flourish at a mile and a quarter? The first step in finding out begins Saturday.
Other than the Jimmy Jerkens factor mentioned last week, I have no strong feelings about him other than he appears to be a relentless closer and still has a lot of room for improvement. He came back off his Mucho Macho Man Stakes victory with a three-furlong blowout and an easy six-furlong breeze in 1:16. With four weeks to recover from a hard-earned victory, he hasn’t been asked to do much. He ran down a good horse in Trophy Chaser in the Mucho Macho Man, but will have a much tougher nut to crack in the Holy Bull, as running down Maximus Mischief is a far tougher task. He doesn’t need to win this to move forward, but again needs to be coming hard and fast in the stretch. Most trainers would have skipped the Holy Bull and waited for the Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth Stakes, but their name is not Jimmy Jerkens.
He’s extending up to five furlongs in his works, going an easy five furlongs in 1:02 1/5, following a sharp :47 3/5 half-mile. It’s good to see him have controlled works. We know how fast and how brilliant he is, and how his owner pulled the plug on him last summer following two jaw-dropping 10-length romps. The time off apparently has helped him mature and harness his speed. Like several others we’ve seen so far, we really have no idea just how good he is and how far he wants to go. But one thing we do know is that his ceiling is extremely high after those two runaway victories. After staying away for so long, you never know how they’re going to come back, but I believe it was a necessary move, as it is a very long road from 10-length romps in sprints in June and August to a mile and a quarter in May, especially considering he is bred to be a mile and an eighth horse. His debut will be widely anticipated.
I still consider him a live sleeper, as he attempts to follow in the footsteps of fellow Cal-bred California Chrome. He has shown signs of simply being a top-class colt. He turned in a strong six-furlong work in 1:13, followed by a 1:14 2/5 drill, so he should have plenty of foundation for the Feb. 18 California Cup Derby, after which he will make the big step into open company in the San Felipe Stakes in March, just as Chrome did. No one is saying he is another California Chrome, but the path has been paved for him. Now all he has to do is take those same giant steps. Unlike Chrome he does not have blue-collar California blood, but is bred in the purple from top to bottom. So forget where he was bred. It just as easily could have been at one of the leading Kentucky farms. Why do you think they paid $600,000 for him as a 2-year-old?
11. Gunmetal Gray
Trainer Jerry Hollendofer isn’t fooling around, wheeling him right back in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Saturday. He breezed six furlongs in 1:15 1/5 as Hollendorfer continues to work him long. Although he has been coming from far back recently, we still need to see how far he wants to go. His running style has changed dramatically since his stalking second in the American Pharoah Stakes and his 6 ¾-length maiden romp going a mile. So, is he now a come-from-behind horse or will he be closer to the pace this time? He likely is not going to get the same perfect pace setup he got when winning the Sham Stakes, especially after the bad start by Coliseum, and Mucho Gusto will be tougher to run down than Much Better and Sueno. Hollendorfer no doubt is striking when the proverbial iron is hot, as he has other potential Derby horses waiting in the wings. This race will tell us a lot about Gunmetal Gray and how he wants to run.
12. Knicks Go
Boy, did he dodge a bullet by keeping his spot and not giving it up to Hidden Scroll. Now, there likely will be other places for the Mott Monster to break into the Top 12. With his resume, it would have been very difficult to knock him off the list after only one week, especially the way he’s been working. He should come out running, possibly in the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 9, judging by his five-furlong work in :58 2/5 at Tampa Bay, fastest of 38 works at the distance. The more you watch his run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the more impressed you had to be, bumping with Game Winner and hanging tough until the final yards; this after stalking the pace and opening a clear lead turning for home. His Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity win was even more impressive the way he drew off like he wanted more distance. We’ll just scrap his dull effort in Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in the slop. That was not him.
Knocking on the Door
We must begin with the spectacular career debut of Hidden Scroll, who would have jumped right into the Top 12, but I hate dropping a horse off after only one week when he did nothing wrong, and two on the list will be facing each other at Gulfstream Park this weekend and another will be competing at Santa Anita. So, with four dirt stakes and a grass stakes on Saturday, there probably will be some sort of shakeup and he no doubt will find a spot in the Top 12. The question is where to put him. In addition, I had so much to say about him there wouldn’t have been enough room in the space above. So let’s say he already has one foot in the door and will put the other foot in next week.
With that said, what has gotten into Bill Mott this year? After so many decades of training and so few horses on the Derby trail, he's suddenly doing a great impression of Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. Just when we thought we had seen his full arsenal with Mucho, Country House, and Tacitus, he unleashed a monster on Saturday, whose career debut was so jaw dropping, you know people are going to be looking at him as the next Justify.
And that is where the dilemma comes in. Could we actually have another Justify just one year later and witness another horse defy Apollo and also history by winning the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts? And are we going to base our superlatives on a race run in the slop and over a quick, speed-favoring surface?
The feeling here is that we witnessed something very special on Saturday, despite the track. You normally don’t see an 8-1 shot look that sensational first time out, winning under a hand ride by 14 lengths in a scintillating 1:34 4/5 for the mile. If you feel the track was so fast it takes away from the time then forget the actual time. He ran the mile faster than the 5-year-old City of Light ran his mile in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles. He came home his final eighth in just about the same time as City of Light. He ran his mile more than a full second faster than it took the 6-year-old Aztec Sense to win the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Stakes, and Aztec Sense was winning his ninth consecutive race, including five stakes. Finally, he ran his opening half-mile in :44.75, compared to the :44.37 it took one of the fastest sprinters in the country, World of Trouble, in the off-the-turf Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint.
Slop or no slop, you just don’t see a 3-year-old first-time starter do things like that. It was obvious early when he glided to the lead along the rail that he was in complete control of the race. As for his odds of 8-1, the public simply missed or ignored his three bullet works at Payson Park, and even more revealing, his bullet :47 2/5 half at Churchill Downs last summer, fastest of 32 works at the distance, in only the third work of his life. And this is Bill Mott we’re talking about.
The barn certainly wasn’t surprised he won impressively. They knew they were unleashing a good one but, of course, couldn’t predict he would turn in that kind of performance, especially in his debut. He identified himself to everyone pretty early as being very talented. The reason for his delayed debut and the 3 ½ months between works was that he hurt himself in the barn at Churchill over the summer. He was very close to running when the incident occurred. Everyone in the Mott barn was really looking forward to his debut and are all extremely excited about the colt’s performance. More importantly, they were pleased with the way he came out of the race and how he looked the following morning.
On the pedigree side, he is the fourth generation bred by Juddmonte Farms. His dam is a half-sister to Starformer, who won graded stakes at 10 furlongs, 11 furlongs, and 12 furlongs, and his second dam won the Group 1 Prix de la Foret. His fourth dam, Nijinsky’s Star is the only horse ever by an English Triple Crown winner (Nijinsky II), out of an American Triple Crown winner (Chris Evert). Nijinsky’s Star is the granddam of major Juddmonte stakes winners Sightseek, a seven-time Grade 1 winner, and Tates Creek, winner of the Diana Stakes, Gamely Stakes, and Yellow Ribbon Stakes. She is also the granddam of $1.3 million earner Bowman’s Band. So we are talking about a sensational female family.
Hidden Scroll earned an amazing 104 Beyer Speed Figure, and the racing world will be glued to his next start, hopefully on a fast track, and we will find out just what we are dealing with.
Before we start getting serious about separating the contenders from the pretenders, let’s try to find a blueprint for today’s Kentucky Derby winner so we know what we’re looking for. The question is: are we witnessing a change in the profile of a Derby winner or are we merely in the midst of a temporary trend?
In the past, the goal has been to find a horse who will get the mile and a quarter and do his best running at the end. Despite the points system eliminating pure sprinters, the Derby is now being won by horses with speed who go fast early and slow late, which is just the opposite of what we used to look for.
It is still rare for a horse to win the Derby wire-to-wire, but in the last five runnings, no winner has come from farther back than third and no opening quarter-mile has been run slower than :23 flat, which is pretty fast for a mile and a quarter in May. In fact the average opening quarter has been :22 3/5, which used to be considered suicidal, as did the average half mile of :46 2/5. All five years, the Derby winner has been right on or just off those fractions. Because of that, the final quarters have been run in a dawdling :27, :26 1/5, :25 3/5, :26 3/5, and :26 1/5.
So where have the closers gone? Considering the short prices of the last five winners, it could simply be that they were far and away the best horse in the field. What this all means is that early speed no longer is a deterrent in finding a Derby winner, and we should not eliminate horses just because they have speed in their pedigrees. And most of the horses listed above do have speed in their pedigrees. As for the late closers, it seems as if they either rally too late or just lose track of the leaders because of the fractions and fail to fire. What all this means is that you want to look for the horse with the most talent and not worry about his running style and how fast he can come home. You just don’t want a horse who is headstrong and has to be on the lead.
But as an old schooler, I still like to point out those horses who can come home fast, but also those who have the tactical speed to stay close to the pace and assure themselves a clean trip.
OK, now let’s get back to the horses. I want to continue by taking a slight detour and head out of the country. On Thursday they ran the 1 3/16-mile Al Bastakiya Prep and the wire-to-wire winner was Manguzi. What makes this race significant and the belief that we may have something extraordinary in Dubai this year is the fact that Manguzi came back and won this race after being crushed in the UAE 2,000 Guineas Trial by the undefeated and untested Walking Thunder, who romped by nine lengths and looked sensational doing it. So this discussion is not about Manguzi, but about how his performance boosts Walking Thunder.
What also makes Walking Thunder look like a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse is that he an American-bred by hot young sire Violence, he has a great blend of speed and stamina, an is inbred to the great Damascus through his sons Bailjumper and the brilliant Ogygian. As far as the possibility of him coming for the Derby if he runs well in the UAE Derby on March 30, he is owned by Phoenix Ladies Syndicate, which is a spinoff of Phoenix Thoroughbreds and is for ladies only in order to broaden participation of women in the racing industry. The hope is that its success will get more women to invest in racing in and outside the UAE. And remember that Phoenix Thoroughbreds, founded by Amer Abdulaziz, has already brought Gronkowski to America from Europe, where he finished second to Justify in last summer’s Belmont Stakes.
Walking Thunder has the look of a classic horse, and I loved the way he tracked a solid pace in the about one mile 2,000 Guineas Trial, with the jockey up in the saddle as if he had a ton of horse under him. With little urging, the colt showed excellent acceleration and just blew his field away and galloped out very strong. He did everything like a pro and looks like a bargain, having been purchased for only $42,000 at the OBS 2-year-old sale. In his previous two starts, all at Meydan, he won by 5 ¼ lengths and 4 ½ lengths, the latter carrying 131 pounds. So bring on the ladies. This is one to watch.
Getting back to the Al Bastakiya (the second leg of the UAE Triple Crown) Trial, we should also keep an eye on the runner-up, Estihdaaf, a Godolphin-owned and bred colt by Arch, out of the Ghostzapper mare Enrichment, who is a full-sister to Better Lucky, winner of the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes and First Lady Stakes and second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint and Just a Game Stakes. His second dam, Sahara Gold, won the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, and Sahara Gold’s dam, Desert Stormer won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, so there is a lot of classy speed on bottom to go with Arch’s stamina on top.
What I liked about Estihdaaf’s race is that he sat comfortably in third and moved up smoothly to reach contention. Although he could not get to Manguzi, who held him at bay to win by a half-length, he did finish 12 ½ lengths ahead of the third horse. If Estihdaaf can learn to switch leads he could move forward and we’ll see how he stacks up against Walking Thunder.
It must be noted that also in the Al Bastakiya Trial was U.S. shipper Tone Broke, trained by Steve Asmussen, who was coming off a fast-closing fourth in the Springboard Mile after winning two in a row at Remington Park. Although he didn’t threaten at Meydan, finishing a well-beaten sixth, he had to go six-wide into the first turn and raced wide throughout over the speed-favoring track.
Back to the United States. Last Friday’s Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park did not appear to produce anything to get overly excited about, as Sugar Bowl Stakes winner Gray Attempt stretched out to a mile and wired his field, holding on to win by a neck over Springboard Mile winner Long Range Toddy, who was a neck in front of Boldor. Both the second- and third-place finishers had their chance, but the winner held them safe in the final furlong and obviously is very good horse. But with the first five finishers separated by only 2 ¼ lengths, there has to be a question whether or not we saw any Derby horses.
The track was playing fairly fast at Oaklawn, and speed for the most part was holding up, so maiden Laughing Fox, a son of Union Rags, did well to run down the pacesetting Passion Play to score by a neck in the 1 1/16-mile finale. In the Smarty Jones, the favorite Bankit, runner-up in the Springboard Mile, and the highly regarded Super Steed both raced together at the back of the pack and failed to fire.
Last week, we said to keep an eye on Jersey Agenda, and the Steve Asmussen-trained colt showed he is the real deal by following up his impressive maiden victory at Churchill Downs in November with an equally impressive allowance score at Oaklawn the day after the Smarty Jones, stretching out to a mile and defeating two very nice horses, Jack Van Berg and Pole Setter, winning by nearly three lengths. Owned by Charles Fipke, he has speed on top, but a ton of stamina on the bottom. He just has the look of a good one and could be the one to beat in the Feb. 18 Southwest Stakes.
As mentioned, we could have the first shake-up on the Dozen after this weekend when we’ll see what emerges from the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita, Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, and Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, as well as the Swale Stakes and the Dania Beach Stakes on grass at Gulfstream.
With Jerome Stakes winner Mind Control skipping the Withers to wait for the Gotham Stakes in March, we’ll keep an eye on the Todd Pletcher-trained Moretti, trying for back-to-back victories at 1 1/8 miles, and the impressive maiden winner Tikhvin Flew, who won first time out going seven furlongs for Steve Asmussen and recently turned in a bullet five-furlong work in 1:01 at Belmont Park.
Two horses we touted strongly last week, Nolo Contesto and Omaha Beach, one-two in a one-mile maiden race Jan. 4 at Santa Anita, both turned in superb works, with Nolo Contesto going five furlongs in 1:00 4/5, second-fastest of 24 works at the distance, and Omaha Beach zipping his five furlongs in :59 3/5, second-fastest of 94 works at the distance. This followed a half-mile drill in a bullet :47 flat, fastest of 29 works at the distance. Watch out for both these colts. Omaha Beach should be an overwhelming favorite to break his maiden in his next start.
Last Sunday, Nitrous, a son of Tapit who was brilliant breaking his maiden in 1:03 3/5 for 5 ½ furlongs at Saratoga before finishing third in the Hopeful Stakes, seemed to enjoy stretching out to a mile, as he exploded past horses on the turn, going from 10th to first after getting squeezed badly at the start, and then just held on to win the Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park. He is one of many Derby hopefuls trained by Steve Asmussen.
Having his first breeze of the year at Santa Anita was the Grade 1-placed Rowayton, who went three furlongs in :36 3/5 for Jerry Hollendorfer. Baffert worked his maiden winner Kingly, a son of Tapit, six furlongs in 1:15.
West Point Thoroughbreds, who has Galilean and Gunmetal Gray currently in the Top 12, has another to watch in Still Dreaming, who was sent to Tampa Bay Downs from Fair Hill by trainer Graham Motion and breezed five furlongs in 1:02. The son of Flatter, who is co-owned by Chris Larson, was impressive breaking his maiden by three lengths going a mile at Laurel Park. Another breaking his maiden at a mile is Midnight Curfew for Jeremiah Englehart, who blew out the son of Midnight Lute a half in :50 3/5.
At Santa Anita, Richard Mandella has Extra Hope, a well-beaten third in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, working well, blowing out three furlongs in :36 1/5 following a strong six-furlong work in 1:13 3/5. Also pointing the Robert B. Lewis is the Bob Baffert-trained Mucho Gusto, runner-up to stablemate Improbable in the Los Alamitos Futurity, who worked six furlongs in company in 1:12 3/5. Although he set the pace in the Los Al Futurity, he broke off about five lengths behind his workmate, so perhaps Baffert has a different strategy planned this time.
You know at some point that Dale Romans is going to make his presence felt on the Derby, and that could come this weekend in the Holy Bull Stakes with Come On Gerry, who wired a maiden field in December to score by 2 ¼ lengths going 1 1/16 miles. He breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 at Gulfstream Park. One of the more consistent 3-year-olds in Florida is Garter and Tie, winner of the Smooth Air Stakes and the Affirmed Division of the Florida Stallion Series and third in the Mucho Macho Man for trainer Ralph Nicks. Since finishing fourth in his career debut, he has finished in the money in six consecutive races. He breezed a half in :49 1/5 at Gulfstream Park.
At Palm Beach Downs, Todd Pletcher sent out So Alive for a solid five-furlong breeze in 1:01 2/5 and Federal Case for a half-mile work in :48 1/5. So far, this has been as quiet a winter for Pletcher on the Derby trail as we can remember. Usually his 3-year-olds are wining everything in sight in Florida. But he does have Moretti slated for the Withers on Saturday and three or four waiting for upcoming stakes.