This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago.
For the second edition of this column leading up to the 2020 Kentucky Derby, this week the main focus is the action to date in January.
With the Derby trail really heating up this weekend with three points races, this column will begin to appear regularly as we move into February 2020 and start to analyze the contenders and pretenders for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Looking around at some of the early Kentucky Derby top 10 lists, it seems pretty clear that I am significantly higher on Authentic than most. Perhaps I’ve given him more credit than he deserves, but I’m very confident Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert can get his behavioral/maturity issues ironed out ... and that really is the main concern with him. The Into Mischief colt showed push-button acceleration when winning the Grade 3 Sham Stakes by 7 ¾ lengths Jan. 4 and boosted his Equibase Speed Figure from a 96 to a 113 while stretching out in distance from 5 ½ furlongs in his debut to one mile in the Sham. That is an incredibly encouraging sign. He’s also worked twice since the Sham win, including a strong half-mile in 47 4/5 seconds on Jan. 22, so it looks like he came out that race in very good shape. Back to the maturity issue I mentioned earlier, Authentic ducked in sharply twice in the stretch in the Sham, which jockey Drayden Van Dyke attributed to crowd noise, but still proved many lengths the best despite weaving his way down the lane. The Sham was only start number two for Authentic, so he’s still learning and he has a two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer to get him straightened out literally and figuratively. Authentic’s 90 Beyer Speed Figure and 97 BrisNet speed rating also were encouraging. He is by a terrific sire and yet the pedigree does feel a little light on stamina, but to me the step forward he took when stretching out in distance for the first time carries significantly more weight than names on a page.
This is another 3-year-old where it feels like I’m trending against the grain with a more optimistic perspective, but I’m OK with that. I’ve mentioned several times through the years in this blog and my Making the Grade profiles that progress in racehorses is not linear. Sometimes 2-year-olds dazzle in the first few starts and then flicker out, while other racehorses do not emerge until they have a half-dozen or more starts. Enforceable falls into the latter category. He needed four starts to earn his first win, but what it appears he really needed was a two-turn race on the dirt to bring out his best after a pair of sprints and a race on the grass. He then finished third in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and fourth, beaten by two lengths on a sloppy track, in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes before his big breakthrough in the Jan. 4 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. Enforceable closed from 11th of 13, more than nine lengths behind the pace, with an eye-catching rally to prevail by 1 ½ lengths under Julien Leparoux, who was aboard for the first time. His final sixteenth of a mile in 6.28 seconds was promising and he passed 10 horses despite a rather tepid early pace. Enforceable’s Equibase Speed Figure was a new eight-point career-best 97, but still uninspiring for a 3-year-old Derby hopeful at this time of year. His 89 Beyer Speed Figure and 94 BrisNet speed rating were more promising. He’s now had five starts around two turns (counting the one on grass), so there is a solid foundation with Enforceable, and the pairing with Leparoux seems like an ideal fit to best utilize his off-the-pace turn of foot. Enforceable is by three-time leading sire Tapit out of Justwhistledixie, a Grade 2 winner at 1 1/8 miles who has produced four stakes winners. “He’s a beautiful horse with a big pedigree, and he’s just had to learn,” said trainer Mark Casse, who won the Preakness in 2019 with War of Will. “We do things differently than most people. I like running them and letting them learn.”
I almost never place maiden winners in one of the top three spots in this blog; if they appear here, you’ll almost always find them in the honorable mention section. That’s because I believe there is a level of trust that comes with stakes, and even allowance, competition that you just can’t have with a maiden race. I made an exception here for Nadal, winner of a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight race Jan. 19 at Santa Anita. If I was going against the grain a bit with the first two picks, I’m definitely falling in with the consensus here as many astute handicappers made note of Nadal’s dazzling debut. Nadal was a little slow out of the starting gate, but he quickly pulled up to challenge for the lead without looking overeager and dueled through an opening quarter-mile in :21.88. The Bob Baffert trainee led through a half-mile in :44.91 and coasted through the stretch to win by 3 ¾ lengths. In watching and re-watching the race, he looked very relaxed for his debut and appeared largely unfazed after the sluggish start. His natural speed moved him forward to challenge for the lead and he put away pacesetter Threearchbaymafia with ease. Considering the swift pace Nadal set, the final sixteenth of a mile in 6.35 seconds was impressive even though it was a sprint. He earned a 98 Beyer Speed Figure, a 102 Equibase Speed Figure, and a 94 BrisNet speed rating for the victory. Baffert unveiled debut winner Justify in February 2018 and he went on to sweep the Triple Crown (Baffert’s second sweep in four years), so the Justify comparisons for Nadal are inevitable. Nadal is by 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame out of the Pulpit mare Ascending Angel, who hails from a powerful and family. Nadal’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Solar Colony, is a full-sibling to champion Pleasant Stage and graded stakes winners Stage Colony and Colonial Play. This is an exciting talent with an equally exciting two-turn pedigree.
Honorable Mentions: I do not believe Independence Hall was anywhere close to peak condition for the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1 and he still won by four lengths. However, from a speed-figure standpoint he took a step backward and visually he was not as impressive to me as previous races. The Constitution colt is unbeaten in three starts and, in my mind, still rates a top Kentucky Derby hopeful. But I came away from the Jerome less enthused about Independence Hall than I was after his sensational win in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes in November, so in my mind he was not trending up like the trio of 3-year-olds above. … I mentioned several reasons for skepticism when evaluating Smarty Jones Stakes winner Gold Street in this week’s Making the Grade, but to make it short and sweet here: His three wins have all come on off (wet) tracks and I’m not excited about his pedigree for 1 ¼ miles. He did, however, take a big step forward Jan. 24 at Oaklawn Park and earned 10 qualifying points, so he absolutely warrants a mention here.
Having won the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on a sloppy track in November at Churchill Downs, I don’t view the off (wet) track at Oaklawn Park for the Jan. 24 Smarty Jones Stakes as a viable excuse for Silver Prospector. I understand there is a big difference with how different tracks absorb moisture. The muddy track at Oaklawn looked more like peanut butter compared with a soupy surface at Churchill, but the Smarty Jones was pretty clearly the worst of Silver Prospector’s four starts to date on the main track as he was beaten by 7 ½ lengths and never really contended. It’s too early to start dismissing 3-year-olds off a single bad race, but you’d prefer to see Derby hopefuls taking at least incremental steps forward at this time of year rather than taking a significant step backward.
I gave Scabbard a pass for his fourth-place finish, beaten by 7 ¾ lengths, in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because there was so much work being done to the main track at Santa Anita leading up to the Breeders’ Cup that I simply did not trust the surface enough to make an accurate evaluation. When he came back and finished fifth — albeit with a troubled trip — and beaten by seven lengths as the favorite in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes Jan. 18, I amended my long-range outlook for Scabbard. This clearly is a 3-year-old with physical talent as he showed when second in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes and Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes last year. His Iroquois was even better than it looks on paper as he was essentially stopped on the far turn but fought on to finish just 1 ¾ lengths behind winner Dennis’ Moment. But Scabbard has lost by at least seven lengths in each of his last two starts at a time when Derby contenders should be improving, and the 85 Equibase Speed Figure for the Lecomte was 11 points worse than the Iroquois and an eight-point drop from the Juvenile. I thought Scabbard would bounce back in the Lecomte. I won’t be fooled again; he now needs to prove he’s back on the racetrack.
Shoplifted did not run poorly in the Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 24 at Oaklawn Park, but he also did not run particularly well in a third-place finish. He finished 5 ½ lengths behind winner Gold Street and was unable to improve his position in the stretch — in fact he lost a few lengths. Perhaps the muddy track was the culprit as Shoplifted dropped from a 108 Equiabse Speed Figure for his Remington Springboard Mile Stakes win to an 89 for the Smarty Jones, but for a colt I already thought might have some distance limitations this looked like an ideal spot to firm up his Derby credentials. I’m not giving up on Shoplifted after the one race, but it does look now like the 108 speed figure for the Springboard Mile is more of an outlier as he’s earned between an 83 and an 89 in each of his other five starts. I’ll be watching his next start with interest, but I won’t be backing him at the betting windows. I’d like to see him in a one-turn mile or seven furlongs on a fast track, which I think might ultimately be his calling.