Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 146th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, now rescheduled for Sept. 5.
Last Saturday, Tiz the Law cemented his status as the best East Coast-based Kentucky Derby contender in his crop, and arguably as the best contender period, with a dominant win in the Curlin Florida Derby. With the postponed racing meet at Santa Anita Park and Aqueduct and the cancellation of Keeneland’s spring meet entirely, there are no Kentucky Derby prep races scheduled until the Arkansas Derby, which has been postponed to May 2, original date of the Kentucky Derby.
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Derby Dozen Status Update:
Yes, Virginia, there is still a Derby Dozen, as we have been informed that sponsor Shadwell Farm wants to keep it going right up until the week of the Arkansas Derby, so if anyone has any poems, songs, short stories, or any limericks and one-liners they wish to share, send them in. But seriously, we will try to provide some semblance of a Derby Dozen, although there is not much that would alter the Top 12 rankings unless we try some bold moves and revamp them based solely on what these horses might look like five months from now, as we’ve done with one or two of them. But for now we have quite a gap between the Curlin Florida Derby and Arkansas Derby on May 2 if they don’t run the Santa Anita Derby, so we’ll try to make it as entertaining as possible.
1. Tiz the Law
There has to be something bittersweet about winning a major prep for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and establishing yourself as a solid favorite for the run for the roses and then have no Derby on the first Saturday in May in which to run. Tiz the Law couldn’t have been more impressive winning the Florida Derby as he dominated the best 3-year-old field assembled this year, and did it like the consummate pro. This was his most professional effort yet as he rated beautifully just off the pace and ran perfectly straight in the stretch without cocking his head, as he had done in past races and workouts. Some may point out the final time of 1:50 and final eighth in :13.21, but they hadn’t run a dirt race in two hours and the race was run just before 7 p.m. ET, so perhaps the track was getting a bit loose and dry on a warm humid evening. Just a possibility. And if not, history has shown us that a regression in time late on the Derby trail after running fast earlier is nothing new with great horses (See Knocking on the Door below).
With no assurance there will even be a Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert is moving forward with this one if Santa Anita Park runs the Santa Anita Derby. Other than that, he is playing it week by week. Baffert is so effusive in his praise for this colt, and you have to respect that, especially in a year like this with so few standouts when it comes to pure talent. He is a late foal and still maturing, and he looks more professional with every race. No certainty he’ll stay 1 ¼ miles with his pedigree, but he is very light on his feet and just floats over the ground using up little energy. In short, he takes very little out of himself, as he showed in his latest six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5. There is no doubting his talent; the main question is whether he can rate off the pace if he has to. It seems he gets the lead so easily and is never rank, so, like American Pharoah, all indications are that he will rate kindly. I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the best of him.
3. Honor A. P.
Who knows if or when they will run the Santa Anita Derby. If they don’t, trainer John Shirreffs could very well back off him and wait for the summer. But he’s keeping him sharp, working him five furlongs in 1:00 1/5, doing it well in hand. Right now, he needs to move forward off his solid San Felipe Stakes performance as promising as that was. He appears to have a lot of leg action and seems to hit the ground hard, but that could be emphasized by his white front legs. He does have the right running style, lying just off the pace, and has a decent enough kick. Distance is not an issue, as he has plenty of stamina top and bottom in his pedigree.
4. Sole Volante
Why am I so persistent on keeping him this high, especially when the horse he beat in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, Independence Hall, ran so poorly in the Florida Derby? Again, we’re back to visuals. He didn’t just rally late off a fast pace, he demonstrated an explosive kick on the turn and had the race won at the quarter pole. And I just like what I saw in the stretch, especially the fluidity of his stride and how he just glided over the ground. And this was over Independence Hall’s home track of Tampa Bay Downs. Patrick Biancone has backed off a little on his training as he points for the May 2 Arkansas Derby. He could be back at No. 2 or 3 by the time that race is over, as we have no idea if the Santa Anita Derby will be run. That will be a layoff of three months, so Biancone will have his work cut out for him getting him sharp and fit.
He’s headed to Keeneland, where he should resume training. No reason to rush him now to make any particular race, as there is really nothing left for him. Fortunately, his connections were able to get several good works in him, including the last two at five furlongs, so if this virtual stoppage ends in the near future it wouldn’t take him too long to get ready for a race. The reason he’s been back in the Top 12, despite having only two career starts and none this year, is his explosive victory in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, still the most visually impressive performance by a 2-year-old last year. We just have to see if that explosive turn of foot he exhibited is something he can repeat. He is still high in the rankings because of his high ceiling and a pedigree that will surely carry him a mile and a quarter.
Yep, he is staying right where he was. This is all about projecting ahead to Sept. 5 and I feel he moved forward in the Florida Derby considering he had only one allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs in the last six months, was stuck in traffic most of the way, had holes close on him twice when he was full of run, the last time dropping from two lengths back to almost six lengths back. He was widest of all turning for home, and although he couldn’t improve his position, finishing fourth, I like the way he was striding out in the stretch and just missed by a neck of catching Ete Indien for third, making up a couple of lengths in the final sixteenth. He showed enough to suggest that there is still a great deal of room for improvement. To me, he did not lose anything in this race, especially with the Kentucky Derby pushed back to September.
I have the same question with him as I do his stablemates Authentic and Charlatan. The only difference is that he has yet to demonstrate any willingness to rate, even on the lead. But in the Rebel Stakes he went to the lead by necessity from the rail and Bob Baffert has no doubt he will rate when asked to. His three Thoro-Graph numbers have all been “3 ¾,” so he hasn’t gotten any faster since his debut. But because he showed he can go fast early and still win, he has to be considered a contender, although his Brisnet speed figures show a dropoff in the last part of the race. He is bred to go long, so perhaps in the next several weeks or months he can learn to harness some of that speed and not be committed to the lead. It is obvious from his last workout that Baffert is trying to teach him to rate, the way he sat off a workmate and took his time before going after him, not nailing him until right at the wire. And the time of :49 3/5 indicates Baffert didn’t want him going too fast. We will see how well he’s learned his lessons in the Arkansas Derby.
He could turn out to be as talented as any of these, but I still need to see what he can do in stakes company and how he reacts under pressure. He is another who is a question mark at a distance, but like Authentic, he is not headstrong and appears to be an easy horse to rate. I believe he has gone to the front in both his races only because he was much the best horse and Bob Baffert likes to see his horses on the lead when they tower over the competition. He has a smooth, fluid way of going, and could turn out to be something special. I would love to see him tested for class in the Arkansas Derby, so we’ll have to see if they wind up splitting the race to allow both him and Nadal a shot to remain undefeated.
9. Ete Indien
If there is one reason to knock the performances of everyone but the winner it’s that no one, especially Ete Indien, could outrun an 80.90-1 sprinter in Shivaree. Ete Indien had seemingly put him away, but let him come back on the rail and then couldn’t catch him for second. But I will give Ete Indien somewhat of a pass considering how lathered up he was before the Florida Derby, and judging from the nasty horizontal gash on the back of his leg, he obviously got clipped pretty good somewhere in the race. He had every chance to rate off the quick-footed Shivaree and did sit just off him for a while, but he was too revved up to settle behind him. Also, it’s possible he wasn’t really handling this track. I just can’t throw out his previous two races, so I will keep him in the Top 12 and trust Patrick Biancone to find a way to get him to relax. I still think he’s a talented horse and definitely deserves another chance. After his big efforts in the Holy Bull Stakes when second to Tiz the Law and Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes which he won, and now his Florida Derby, in which he got cut up, he probably can use a little down time.
10. King Guillermo
He seems to have fallen into the abyss since his upset score in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. He hasn’t worked since that race and there has been no word regarding his plans. But then again, unless he was targeting the Arkansas Derby, there is no reason to do much with him. So for now, we’ll just wait and see when he shows up again, in the morning and afternoon. But it would be reassuring to at least see a work. So all we can go by is how impressive he looked at Tampa and not knowing just how good he really is or will be come September. He sure looked like a darn good horse and should only get better.
11. Mystic Guide
For all the reasons I mentioned last week this is my wild stab, looking down the line and trying to project where this colt will be in five months. I know he hasn’t beaten winners and has a lot to prove, but I love everything I’ve seen from him so far. And looking at his female family, his dam Music Note won the 1 ¼-mile Coaching Club American Oaks and Mother Goose Stakes, was second in the 1 ¼-mile Alabama Stakes, and was third twice in the Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic. Music Note is a half-sister to French One Thousand Guineas winner Musical Chimes, and Mystic Guide’s third dam, It’s in the Air, upset Hall of Famer Davona Dale in the 1 ¼-mile Alabama and won or placed in 22 stakes, 11 of them Grade 1s. It’s in the Air’s dam, A Wind is Rising, is the fifth dam of two-time Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline winner Thunder Snow. While the other Godolphin Kentucky Derby hopeful, Maxfield, heads to Keeneland, Mystic Guide is off to Fair Hill, where they will map out a plan for possible future races.
12. Major Fed
As we get down to the bottom of the list I have decided to simply focus on the classic-type horses that have impressed me visually, have the pedigree, and that I have been touting based on long-range projection. It was close between Mystic Guide, Major Fed, and Three Technique, and even Attachment Rate, for the final two spots. They are all very close when it comes to the promise I see in them, all should be better horses in September, and they could be interchangeable on Derby Dozen in the coming weeks. One of the reasons I have him in the Top 12 in addition to his sneaky good fourth in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, is a pedigree inundated with European staying power. He will run all day and his last two races indicate there is a great deal of improvement still to come.
Knocking on the Door
To continue our thoughts about the final time of the Florida Derby from a historical viewpoint, after running some brilliant times early in Florida, Spectacular Bid won the Blue Grass Stakes in 1:50. After Northern Dancer won the Florida Derby in a sluggish 1:50 4/5, regressing three full seconds from the Flamingo Stakes, Bill Shoemaker took off him to ride Hill Rise in Kentucky, and all the Dancer did was run the fastest Kentucky Derby of all time to that point. Seattle Slew ran blazing times in Florida, but regressed more than two full seconds winning the Wood Memorial in 1:49 3/5. The brilliantly fast Swaps, who would go on to set world records, barely held on to win the Santa Anita Derby in 1:50, and there were no “Wows” when Majestic Prince won the Santa Anita Derby in 1:49 1/5 and Justify in 1:49 3/5 before becoming undefeated Kentucky Derby winners. Although they were second at Churchill Downs to Hall of Famers, Alydar, after running back-to-back times of 1:47 flat, regressed nearly three seconds when he won the Blue Grass in 1:49 3/5, and his son Easy Goer missed Dr. Fager's world record by a fifth of a second in the Gotham Stakes before winning the Wood Memorial in a slow 1:50 3/5. So Tiz the Law winning the Florida Derby in 1:50 after a brilliant performance in the Holy Bull Stakes is no big deal. And who knows when he will run next. Anyway, just a little history lesson the break things up a bit.
I have to admit I would have preferred Shivaree, a 80.90-1 sprinter, not finishing second in the Florida Derby and coming back after being headed by Ete Indien at the quarter pole and outrunning him. But let’s not forget that a 71.50-1 maiden, Bodexpress, finished second in last year’s Florida Derby behind Maximum Security. Also Shivaree was getting blinkers off after three wins and two seconds in his last five starts, including four stakes, and he is not bred to be a sprinter. His paternal grandsire won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and his two maternal great-grandsires both won the Belmont Stakes. Something inspired trainer Ralph Nicks to stretch him out in a Grade 1, so perhaps this won’t be that much of a surprise in the long run.
I have no idea what happened to Independence Hall in the Florida Derby. He was in good striking position but was empty before they hit the head of the stretch. His speed figures indicated he was on an excellent pattern to get back to that monster -2 he ran on Thoro-Graph last year, but he took a major step backwards. I still believe he’s a very good horse who just had a bad day.
Of my other two long-range Derby bullets, Three Technique hasn’t worked since the Rebel Stakes, so, although the Arkansas Derby seems logical, I’ll put him on hold until we learn what his plans are. And although I have been unable to make contact with Dale Romans, Attachment Rate’s five-furlong work in a sharp 1:00.36 suggests he might be heading to the Arkansas Derby. So I will just assume that until we learn otherwise. I still say watch out for this colt.
Until we learn the fate of the Santa Anita Derby it makes no sense to speculate on the size of the Arkansas Derby field and who might be running. But if there is no Santa Anita Derby I would say there is an excellent chance of it being split, as there is no other place to run these 3-year-olds in the foreseeable future. You could have shippers from Santa Anita, Fair Grounds, horses who ran in the Tampa Bay Derby, and perhaps one or two from New York, as well as a solid group of local representatives.
Bob Baffert has been planning on running Thousand Words in the Santa Anita Derby, and will have to come up with an alternate plan if that race isn’t run. He’s been working very well, and we’ll see if Baffert has him and/or Authentic join Nadal and Charlatan. Those four split in two divisions would be awfully formidable. Baffert also has Azul Coast working sharply and he’s been looking to run somewhere since they canceled the Sunland Derby.
One Arkansas Derby prospect, Basin, worked five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 and should improve off his third-place finish in the Rebel Stakes. Rebel runner-up Excession indicated his sharpness by working five furlongs in 1:00 4/5. The big question with him is how he’ll do on a fast track, having proven himself quite a mudlark.
We’ll see what trainer Bill Mott decides to do with Modernist, whose wide trip when third in the Louisiana Derby suggests he is making steady progress and could be one to watch come September. I’m still in a dilemma what to do with Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou, who has made great strides in his last three starts, but in his five lifetime starts he still hasn’t shown any inclination to rate off the pace. But he is getting awfully good right now.
Another of my horses to watch, Farmington Road, breezed a half in :50.08 at Palm Beach Downs and is another who could run in the Arkansas Derby. Watch out for the son of Quality Road coming on late.